At the start of the year, I wasn't sure what awesome albums I'd be exposed to. Then spring came, and my list was still a little short compared to most years. Then over time, my 2014 Albums folder grew, and grew. In the end, these last two weeks, the list was getting difficult to navigate. I couldn't decide which albums would make the list. Some were easy choices, others were trickier. In the end, I picked what I felt was well rounded, and overall great. So without further adieu, here are my Top Twenty albums of the year, along with a few honorable mentions. Enjoy!
BEHEMOTH, THE SATANIST
LANA DEL REY, ULTRAVIOLENCE
PINK FLOYD, THE ENDLESS RIVER
SWANS, TO BE KIND
TEMPLES, SUN STRUCTURES
THE SLEER, WE ARE THE SLEER E.P.
20. HURRAY FOR THE RIFF RAFF, SMALL TOWN HEROES
Our countdown begins with a taste of alternative country hailing from the same city as I do, New Orleans Louisiana. I've been hearing about this band for a bit now, and the notices and murmurings of their slow power have finally found their way into my music library. The album has a gentle soaring quality to it, and it's a perfect Sunday Morning Brunch record. Alnyda Lee Segarra's vocals are of a gorgeously honest tone and the album is the perfect compliment to the slowed down, Les Savoire Faire pace we in Crescent City have become accustomed to. Find a porch on a nice day, make a drink, and enjoy this album. Thank me later.
19. PHANTOGRAM, VOICES
Well Phantogram certainly has had a good year recognition wise. The band, who released their second full length this year, had definitely earned it. “Voices” opens with the pulsating “Nothing But Trouble,” and Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter don't lose the beat and tempo the entire record. This record goes perfectly with a new age dance party in a cavern, and to hear tracks like “Black Out Days” and “Howling at the Moon” you'd think they'd been doing this for decades. Sarah's voice has the power of a woman determined, while also remaining delicate when the time calls for it. The band's brand of electro mood rock hasn't been this good since Ladytron took over, and hopefully, the band will just get better as they continue to climb the world of music.
18. THOM YORKE, TOMORROW'S MODERN BOXES
I guess from now on we should just expect a new release from Yorke at any point. For the last few years things of all Thom Yorke related instances have been appearing with little to no notice, and we've all just sat back and enjoyed them. “Tomorrow's Modern Boxes” is no exception. It builds upon the basis of his first self-titled album, while still taking into account the history with his two other bands. What we get here is more of the same, which is fine since it works so well. Yorke's uniquely wonderful voice, mingled with various electronic beats, makes for yet another powerfully singular statement in his career.
17. FLYING LOTUS, YOU'RE DEAD!
On the fifth album as Flying Lotus, Steven Ellison continues to push the limits of what is prominent in electronic music. More or less in line with the style you hear on the other records, you just sense this explosion of emotion and sound on nearly every track. If you're looking for a electronic music record to move mountains in terms of depth and sheer scope, seek this one out. Featuring cameo's from Kendrick Lamar, Snoop Dogg, Thundercat and Captain Murphy(If you get the joke), it really presses the question of why he doesn't do an album where he provides all the music while guests vocalists bring their own idea's to the table. It could be amazing, but until that day perhaps comes, we'll just have to settle for his sick ass beats.
16. CLOUD NOTHINGS, HERE AND NOWHERE ELSE
Another good rock band from less than worthwhile city. Honestly I feel bad for anyone who grew up in Cleveland, but clearly it's been good for some. The album itself is the next logical step for the group, and they're really starting to mesh as one gnarly outfit. It's a special kind of rock n roll, and it doesn't feel forced. To me it feels like when you were young and you only cared about thrashing out and making noise with your friends, except Cloud Nothings actually sounds good. They belong in the same category as Japandroids, and even after that they still remind me of Death From Above 1979 in a way. “Here and Nowhere Else,” their fourth proper album, combines the exact amount of punk elements with rock elements to not overdo it, and the vocals, provided by Dylan Baldi, really make the fists want to bash through the air joyously.
15. TV ON THE RADIO, SEEDS
On the bands sixth release, and the first without founding member Gerald Smith the band is doing more of the same in terms of voice usage, beats and percussion, while making the music resonate in a joyful, life affirming way. Perhaps this is the bands way of embracing the time they had with the departed Smith, and choosing to display color and positivity instead of dread and depression. The album overall has a more pulsating, late night beats feel than the other records, but it never sounds like it's a different band. TV on the Radio continue with this release to pump out body movers like “Careful You” while making you wonder why they aren't a huge, huge band. Seriously, it's time they broke out, and started playing before headliners at Coachella. They've earned it, and the music is only getting better.
14. MASTODON, ONCE MORE 'ROUND THE SUN
Even though the placement hear isn't super high, this is the best metal record of the year in my eyes. With the next step in their massive uphill trajectory, the Georgia metal sludge makers add more of everything. More singers, more depth, and more emotion. The lyrics to album opener “Tread Lightly” are some of the most positively uplifting words I've ever heard, and the sonic force throughout the album is the Mastodon we've all grown to love. Also, can we briefly talk about the ass shaking greatness that is the “The Motherload” video? It's immaculate to say the least. Mastodon has more or less been known for amazing concept albums, but much like they did on “The Hunter” they prove here that they can still deliver songs in a traditional, non-linear way. Lastly, most hallucinogenic album cover of the year.
13. ANGEL OLSEN, BURN YOUR FIRE FOR NO WITNESS
This women's voice, for real. While it's not as lovely as Hope Sandoval's from Mazzy Star, this record really brings me back to that type of world. The longing throughout the album, and the want in Olsen's voice is the type of desire you don't hear too often, but it stays with you and lingers on your skin for days after you are exposed to it. When it's not being sullen and lonely, the record also contains a bit of a Lo-Fi rocking quality, mostly seen in tracks like “Forgiven/Forgotten” and “High and Wild.” Overall, the album has a very dusty, midwestern feel to it, and would be great to experience while you drive through America's Heartland during the sun set.
12. FUTURE ISLANDS, SINGLES
What a fucking year these Wham City(Baltimore) veterans have had. I've mentioned them before, and it's well deserved. I was introduced to them years ago when they opened for Dan Deacon, and from the first instant, I was confounded and mesmerized not only by the voice of, but also the stage presence of Samuel Herring. Without a doubt one of the best voices in music right now, and the synth healthy effects of the music do nothing to bring down the ship. It's so awesome to see a band whose worked their asses off to FINALLY be seeing some pay off for tireless effort. Lead track “Seasons(Waiting on You)” might be song of the year(it was to Pitchfork), but the other songs are just as strong as the opener. Future Islands. Love It. That is all.
11. ST. VINCENT, ST. VINCENT
Although I was later getting into the album than some of my friends, I think it's in due partly because I couldn't make sense of it at first. Sure it's great, but it doesn't sound like the Annie Clark I grew to love on the previous two albums. It's more electronic, way more production value, and she's got what color hair now? OK, so maybe that's not the best approach when trying to open your mind to new sounds, but once I got the concept and aesthetic she was going for, it made perfect sense. She's pushing herself in a new direction, and it's paying off. The incendiary guitar playing is still there, but all these new things are happily thrown in. “Digital Witness,” complete with synth and horns, for some reason seems like a hip hop song to me, but in a great way. David Byrne rubbed off on her in the best way possible.
10. PERFUME GENIUS, TOO BRIGHT
I will admit to just getting this album within the last week, but almost from the first listen I was digging it. For me, this is the biggest and best surprise of the year. I had never heard of him before, but man I'm glad I found it. To me this album almost feels like it's set in the world of a macabre fairy tale, and the drums and airiness throughout only sell my feelings even more. His voice is a unique blend of anger, desperation, and triumph. At parts he's deeply revealing himself, while at other turns he's pulling back and attacking like a stalker in the dark. His piano skills are impeccable, and they make songs like “Too Bright” really touch your soul.
9. DEATH FROM ABOVE 1979, THE PHYSICAL WORLD
Make an incredible album, break up, then reconvene nearly a decade later and make an album that combines what you attempted initially and make the record more raucous and thoughtfully paced. That's what occurred here. The album has everything a fan of the first album would want, and it's a bit more centered and mature. There are still quite a few carefree songs about nonsensical topics, but a track like “White is Red” wouldn't have been possible a decade ago. Drummer/ singer Grainger and keyboardist/ bassist Keeler grew a bit and you can tell in terms of tightness in music and also lyrics. For me, it's a triumphant return and a big leap in technicality, and if you were a fan in the first place, do yourself a favor and check out this long awaited and pined for second album, it's worth your time. Trust me.
8. FIRST AID KIT, STAY GOLD
These sisters from Sweden have over the last few years, become one of the most interesting bands I've come into contact with. For example, how do people from the cold lands of Sweden perfect American Folk Rock with a country twinge. It's really quite impressive. The landscapes they paint for us, intertwined with the soaring instrumental elements, makes for a relaxed, but exhilarating ride. Songs like “Stay Gold” warm over you like a reassuring friend nurturing you, while “ Shattered & Hollow” is a gut wrenching tale of discovery amid a troublesome world. Perhaps the best song on the album, which finds us near the records conclusion, “Heaven Knows” is a exultant dance that brings me back to a old country barn where gas lit lamps are providing the light.
7. THE WAR ON DRUGS, LOST IN THE DREAM
If you've been keeping track like I have, you know that this album is cleaning up on slots that very often reach number one on year end album polls. There's a good reason for that, but on this list is climbs to the number 7 slot. The album itself is a whirlwind of color, and deep contours. I've used this term before for other musicians, but it fits, so I'm using it again. The music, especially the vocals in areas, has a translucent quality to it, and it really makes the album have it's own identity. The drumming, brought to us by Charlie Hall, is also well executed. This is Halls' first record as a permanent member, and I say he very much earns his stripes. A year ago I wouldn't have thought I'd be so into this album, but the War on Drugs “Lost in a Dream” has cast a warm, hypnotic spell on me.
6. SUN KIL MOON, BENJI
A great thing about checking out various websites for new music is when you finally give a listen to a band you have heard of, but never heard. That's what happened this year with Sun Kil Moon, and his eerily still “Benji.” On this, Mark Kozelek's sixth entry as Sun Kil Moon, you're treated to mostly acoustic, yet strongly atmospheric songs ranging in topics from death(“Carissa”) to the trials of adolescence(“ Truck Driver”). While I'd never listened to his records before, the quality has the cognition to immediately embrace you and make you feel familiar. Not since the first Bon Iver record have I felt an album this cold, distant, and somber, while still able to feel close to it in a beautiful way. His voice alone beckons for a gorgeous winter day spent sitting on a pristine lake and huddling up for warmth. An album for winter reflection if there every was one.
5. RUN THE JEWELS, RUN THE JEWELS 2
With this album, El-P and Killer Mike not only took over underground hip hop, but they captured the Throne. I'm not even joking, they have slayed Kanye and Jay. Jay was a goner anyway, but Kanye is still amazing, so don't think I write that lightly. Not only is this the Rap album of the year, I can't remember the last time a “Supergroup” produced anything this fucking good. For years they've both been killing solo careers, and while being successful and underground, they've been on the verge of being well known for a hot second. This is that hot second. Even the vulgar lyrics on the song are awesome. “Fuck the law, they can eat my Dick, that's word to Pimp.” That's an actual lyric on a verse to probably the most bad-ass song on the whole record,”Oh My Darling Don't Cry.” These are the guys great enough to get a guest spot from Zach de la Rocha from Rage Against the Machine to chime in on a track. That in itself doesn't happen often. If we're not gonna talk about lyrics, we can still talk about the endless beats that bust through the speakers and pummel the listener into submission. There are beats present here that make you laugh, bounce up and down endlessly, and nod your head from side to side like only a person listening to grade A Rap Music can. It's simply incredible, and to think, they've already been talking about Run the Jewels 3. They have arrived.
4. WARPAINT, WARPAINT
These ladies are killer, in the subtle, slow type of way. On this, their second full length, Warpaint navigates lush gardens with starry nights, all while giving into ominous layers at every turn. The band really does get better with every release, and their self titled is no exception. From openers “Intro” and “Keep it Healthy” the vocals go back and forth between Theresa and Emily respectively, and it works very efficaciously. It's rare that a band seems to get not only better between releases, but this much better. They've become one of my favorite bands in a very small window of time, and the creativity they bring to the table is a welcome new air. While many songs don't exceed a certain speed(it's a very chill, contemplative record), the slow bear hug that Stella, Emily, Theresa, and Jenny give the listener is something you can't really break free from, even if you wanted to. Perhaps the most upbeat, dance oriented song on the album, “Disco//Very” isn't even what you might consider dance-able. Yet somehow, it still makes your hips gyrate and give in to the pleasure of the music. The band had a real breakthrough with the “Love is to Die,”(It was on True Blood for Christ sakes) and don't expect it to stop anytime soon. This is a band that is going to get even bigger, don't be late to the party.
3. APHEX TWIN, SYRO
This list has quite a few albums that took over five years to make, but in this instance, the wait for the next Richard D. James masterpiece leaves them all in the dust. Coming about thirteen years after his last release, the record has the same precision and ambient soundscapes you'd expect from any Aphex Twin album, and in the end, that's the most important thing. It's been reported that James has hundreds of pieces of work completed, and for whatever reason he doesn't put them out. I'm bittersweet about it. The albums are all so good you want to hear them, but you also respect someone for clearly doing whatever the fuck they want. Among classic electronic music, Aphex Twin is, and perhaps always will be a cut above the rest. On Syro, James is flicking his nose at industry standards, and in the process, giving us some of his best. Tracks lke “CIRCLONT6A [141.98] [syrobonkus mix]” present frantic beats while making you feel like you're in a video game. This is a exercise which James, who still records under multiple other aliases, does with ease. The music is layered to a point where a mere mortal would lose there mind, but as Aphex Twin, it's done precisely and with an exactness that to be honest, is greatly missing in music. This is a dude who couldn't care less about what the industry thinks of him, and that's great, especially when you consider how well produced and put together the albums are.
2. LYKKE LI, I NEVER LEARN
By this time in our knowledge about the Swedish gothic popstar, we should be growing tired of Li's sorrow filled music, yet we're not. The reason for that is her skill to be relatable. People can connect to lost love, and the ache of a broken heart. An album about heartache and a breakup is tricky to do. It requires complete openness and honesty, both in terms of how you want to convey the pain, but also in explaining how to move on. This is a thing she accomplishes with ease, even if she has to give her soul to the music. You can tell she took her time with this one, and the pay off is worth it. She got better in the three years since her last release. Tracks like album opener “I Never Learn” come fit with chamber bells, and her vocals almost have an echo, forlorn quality to them. You hear this numerous times on the record, and each time it's done in a way as to not feel played out. One of the best songs, “Never Gonna Love Again” hits at a critical point in an album where other records start to lose their nerve. “Love Again” is the declaration of love's ruthless abandon, and it creates a cold, but sobering reality that this is all part of the trial. She's spent the last three albums perfecting the art of a entity yearning for love and to grow from defeat, and while I'm interested to see how her style will change after this record, I wouldn't in the least bit be upset if she perfected her craft even more.
1. BECK, MORNING PHASE
Welcome back Mr. Hansen. This album comes to us six years after his last album “Modern Guilt,” and although it wasn't an easy journey for him, the work clearly paid off. A companion album of sorts to the melancholic, earthy“Sea Change,” “Morning Phase” is a more grounded, mature album with textures that put you in a type of head space that few artists can bring you to. Tracks like the ever haunting “Wave” bring you to a dark vulnerable place, while others like “Morning” and “Waking Light” are so gorgeously layered you never want to escape. /It's an album full of revelations not only about Beck himself, but of the listener. Listening to it I found myself being introduced to him for the first time again. That's what kind of record this is. I had almost given up on Beck, but this album shocked my love for him back to life in an emotional way. To say I was blown away by this album would be an understatement. Since it's released it's easily one of the album's I've gone back to most this year, and there's a reason for it. Beck took all the difficulties of the last several years, and turned it into one of his best, most emotionally appealing albums. My number one album of the year, “Beck, Morning Phase.”
I'll Be back January 5th with pieces on Arcade Fire, Massive Attack, MC Hammer, Bjork, and Daft Punk, as well as other gems. Happy New Years!!!
Landon Murray is a published writer and an avid lover of music, books and films. He's also a lover of the New Orleans Saints. He was born in 1982 and has a chainsaw tattoo on his arm.
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