10. Steve Gunn – Way Out Weather
Steve Gunn is just so charmingly guitary. It’s like he’s barely tickling the instrument—effortlessly bending notes and creating little hums to form the most beautiful thing you’ve ever heard. Hyperbolic? Maybe. But it’s probably the most beautiful thing I’ve heard this year. When it came out in October—right as I was feeling the shift of the seasons—I remember feeling like no other album could sound as good as this does. He’s picked up comparisons to bands the Grateful Dead, guys like John Fahey, even the Rolling Stones, and he’s probably marinating in a soup of all of those. But I’d attest that there are probably others in that pot with him that Steve Gunn is still distinguished from. To create a more unique picture, Way Out Weather is sort of like if The Doors knew how to relax. Really relax. Wonderful, crisp, and unparalleled in beauty. This is early morning music for those sun basking hours.
9. Perfume Genius – Too Bright
I was not expecting an album as heavy sounding as I got with Too Bright. Like previous Perfume Genius albums I was expecting something that could be described as “mostly somber piano songs.” Happily, there is still some of that, but I was more so drawn to this for the experimentation with different instruments and sounds that led to an overall sense that you were exploring the deepest and weirdest cave. That darkness makes for something kind of creepy at times and it’s really difficult to predict where the album is going. Even on repeat listens I’m surprised at the turns it makes that I can’t seem to keep straight. Just when things get nearly too dark they quickly shift to something so light and creamy you’re being gently cooed to sleep. This is clearly an album centered around the feelings of not fitting in and the ownership that comes to life in living in that space. Breathtaking, really.
8. Cloud Nothings – Here And Nowhere Else
I spent some time trying to think about what it is that draws me to albums like this. It’s not so evident right away. I mean, at first glance it’s a scummy, quick, jumbled up album that’s moving so quickly you’re enjoying it the way you would rolling down a hill. But what gelled so well for me is the confines it worked so perfectly in. Each song—amidst all of the tumbling craziness—was secretly unraveling a beautiful melody of a vocal line, one that blends into the messy guitar so well you don’t pick it out right away. Japandroids’ 2012 Celebration Rock worked so well in this way too. Of course the music itself is fun, it sounds like it bubbled out of the dankest basement in Cleveland (oddly enough, it kind of did) but it’s hardly the most memorable thing about the album. This album achieved the impossible feat of saying “take me seriously” without actually having to ask. Only the coolest of things are capable of that.
7. Sylvan Esso – Sylvan Esso
I started loving this album from my first listen on NPR’s first listen. Cute, right? It was an attractive sparkle of a thing, boasting folks from Mountain Man and Megafaun, and it made me feel good. It hits all the right spots for what you’d expect of a duo like this to do. Blippy and boppy and genuinely quirky. I’d finish one listen and start the album again and uncountable amount of times. Again, it makes me feel good! Yet, in all that feel-goodery I almost feel ashamed because after months of listening—and I listened to this a lot—it’s actually a pretty one dimensional album. They found a lane and stuck to it. But, even stuck in one dimension, one lane, there still exists a space for something to really shine. While my hope and vision for the future of this band may feel a bit bleak, none of that should take away from how gooooood this makes me feeeeeeel.
6. Little Big League – Tropical Jinx
I had the pleasure of seeing Michelle Zauner’s pre-Little Big League band ‘Post Post’ about 4 or 5 years ago and was stunned. Melodies to melt your heart, attitude to put you in your place, and a sense of youth to bring you to your kneels and make you crawl. Her voice is a special kind of captivating. So when news of Post Post breaking up hit me, I was crushed. And to leave me with but one 4 song EP felt criminal. I spent a couple years casually bumming out about this until earlier this year when I learned that members of Post Post had regrouped as a little punk thang called Little Big League. My excitement went through the roof and so did my play count for their first album, These Are Good People. Rounding out my lucky year in the Little Big League universe, a few months later I learned of a soon to be released Tropical Jinx. To be clear, this is still as raw and nasty as their first album—to be clear still, this is why I love them—but you can’t help but bend to the notion that our babies are growing up. There are beautiful moments of accidental maturity peeking through. If These Are Good People is a knee scraped kid skateboarding, Tropical Jinx is more likely the ratty twenty something who sold his old skateboard to the kid on craigslist. Just as beautiful, just wearing some new perspective. There is no shortage of young Philadelphia (or elsewhere) punk bands squeezing all the good out of the pop punk they grew up on and mixing into something much sweeter and I can safely say none doing it better than Little Big League.
5. Angel Olsen – Burn Your Fire For No Witness
Sadness cloaked in psych bliss. Positivity buried in folk woes. It’s hard to figure out exactly what’s going on with this tricky record—especially when it’s sung through a voice as dazzling as hers. But, what do you expect from a gal named Angel? Seriously, it takes a few listens to even begin hearing words. I love that. Each word is so perfectly crafted, considered, articulated, each sound coming from her feels like it’s gone through the most intense interview process. Like all tricky records, there’s an awful lot of give and take on all the cloudy ends. Throughout, she’s challenging us with examples of stark (or maybe not so stark) juxtapositions. This or thats that have no clear pull and often wind up with her meandering to an ambivalent but comfortable middle. Sounds, feelings, thoughts, nothing has a definitive direction home. It’s a very good kind of confusing. “If you don’t believe me you can go ahead and laugh, if you’ve got a sense of humor you’re not so bad.” I got lost in all the haze that this record stirs up but happily hung around not trying too hard to find the edge.
4. Frankie Cosmos – Zentropy
17 minutes goes by quick. And with that, it’s hard to do much of any significance. It’ll probably take me as long to write this up as it will to listen to the album. And still, here comes Zentropy—17 minutes long, 10 songs, the power of the fluffy dog wearing a knit hat appearing on its album art, and impossible not to enjoy and beg (again, like that hatted dog) for seconds of this birthday cake of an album. It’s that type of sweetness and excitement that makes this the joy that it is. To continue the cake metaphor, beneath all that sweet icing, there is an inherent sadness baked in. Maybe the cake is gone too soon, maybe you ate too much, or maybe you realized you are aging and inches closer to your coming death. Standing shoulder to shoulder with all the candied moments of this album are all her most intimate and most real thoughts splayed out in simple terms. “I’m the kind of girl buses splash with rain” she sings, illustrating the comic luck of someone who trouble just finds “I make my canteen so heavy, as if I need any more water today” she responds, pointing out that maybe all her problems aren’t comic bad luck after all. Maybe she’s the source of her problems. Maybe she ate the whole sickly cake.
3. Mac Demarco – Salad Days
“As I’m getting older, chip upon my shoulder, rolling through life to roll over and die.” The album could very well end after this first line of the first song and I don’t think I’d love it any less. At times it’s odd feeling like you’re taking down pieces of wisdom from a guy who carries himself like he’s still yet to care about anything. A guy who answers to “Pepperoni Playboy.” Nonetheless, as he’s caught between having the flippant attitude of an angry punk and the peace and love of some stoner hippie, he’s dolling out all sorts of life wisdom. “So don’t go telling me how this boy should be leading his own life, sometimes rough but generally speaking I’m fine.” To his point, this is the Mac Demarco show and we’re voluntarily along for the ride. Hop off if it’s bumming you out. While the ethos of the album is circling around himself and how he’s fitting into the obviously less cool earth, trapped alone again in his “chamber of reflection”, it’s no less valid because of it. And when you really dig in, perhaps there’s someone who’s not just a 24 year old goober kid who can’t keep a straight face. Maybe it’s a safe front to someone who’s secretly sincere. When you have a reputation for being a goof, it’s hard to shake people of it. I look forward to listening to this and trying to figure out what any of this means. I’ve forgotten to mention that this sounds like The Beatles and The Beach Boys and Lou Reed and is just a pleasure to listen to in every way.
2. The War On Drugs – Lost In The Dream
The album most likely to float a leather jacket on me as a put my arm around my friend and pump my fist into the air as we head into sunset. The album most likely to make me grow my hair out one last time even though I promised my friends and family I’d never again. The album most likely to wake me up from my own sleepy dream and put me in a ramshackle convertible and drive off a cliff to float over a make believe canyon. Yes, all of this and more. So much captured in this sparkly jewel of a record. Pickin’ on Springsteen, Dylan, The Police, Warren Zevon, you name it, it’s tapping the shoulders of all the greatest superheroes of dad rock and asking them to scoot down and make room for one more. And everyone seems to be just fine with that. I watched this album sweep over all my friends—each with their own unique preference in music—and leave no one behind. It was remarkable to go into work and hear this album quietly leaking out of the headphones of every single person for pretty much all of March and April. It’s not that mass appeal that makes this album good, it’s how good this album is that allows for that many people to enjoy it. It’s a classic in every definition of the term.
1. Sun Kil Moon – Benji
The saddest, most depressing, darkest, weepiest, quietest, most-reflective, honest, diary of an album I’ve ever heard. If you know anything about this record you know death plays a big role. A huge role. It faces the worst thing that can happen to a person and then reminds you that maybe dying is actually only the second worst thing that can happen to you. Living in a world where people around you die is much worse. And while the expected angle would be that you’d be lucky to remember and celebrate those people who’ve died, this album is hardly about that. This is about the inescapable pain of dealing with it. It’s about taking the bumper sticker “never forget” mentality and burning it a fire started by an exploding aerosol can and realizing it’s not our choice to never forget something, it’s our curse. We live in a world where we are punished by the memory of the things that hurt us. “So when Christmas comes and you’re out running around, take a moment to pause and think of the kids who died in Newtown.” Oh hey, yeah, you…on the happiest days of your year, when you’re with your family, don’t you ever forget the tragedies that happened. Live with this. It’s so dark and painful, such an abysmal way to be in the world, but it’s also a cry from someone who’s hurt and sick of just going along with it.
Like any good diary, we are lucky enough to see the rest of Mark. A chance to try to piece together why he’s coming to the realizations he’s coming to. And he’s giving us a surprising amount. The bright points, the funny parts, the humiliating parts, the wonted parts, the parts where he’s scared witless. And these parts come together in each song, sometimes multiple times within a song, to tell incredibly visual—and yes, often merciless—narratives. “When I was five I came home from kindergarten crying because they sat me next to an albino. My dad said ‘Son everyone’s different you gotta love them all equally you know’”
The most beautiful part of this is that Mark Kozelek is 47 years old and despite all he’s experienced, he’s still scared to death of death, plagued by the screw ups of himself, his friends, his family, still trying to figure out how to cope with his emotions, and ultimately admitting he’s not even sure he’s better for any of it. While this easily could be taken as depressing, it’s worth noting that he’s not complaining. He’s just putting it all out there, exposing himself as best he can, and trying to deal with what comes from that.
Notable Superlatives /
The Sweetest Pop Album Of The Year
Jessie Ware – Tough Love
Pop stars begging to be taken seriously, respected independent artists trying to ironically dip into sappy R&B—there’s a lot of weirdness in those spaces of crossover, and a lot of it is ugly and unimportant. This album is nailing the one thing mainstream pop can’t seem to get right, and the one thing I won’t let it live down: an album that’s enjoyable from start to end with no junk songs mixed in. Not a just series of enjoyable singles strung together, each complete with their own shiny 99 cent “buy now” iTunes button. Also, Champagne Kisses is one of the best tracks of the year from any album, despite being one of the goofiest names.
The Darkest Pop Album Of The Year
Lykke Li – I Never Learn
Check you out Lykke Li. Look at you trading in your naive and ultimately irksome former self for a brand new something sleek. I was cautious to throw myself at this album—why should I knowingly explore yet another bout of quirk from the girl who just wants to daaaaaaance, man. Instead, I Never Learn turns her pop vocal talent to the darkish side and goes for the heart. Most impressive is how the album moves. It takes until the albums mid-point in the aptly titled Gunshot to feel a perfectly timed jolt of life. It’s a very well designed album.
The I Can’t Believe I’m Loving This As Much I Am Album Of The Year
Tigers Jaw – Charmer
Calling this anything but a pop punk album would only be an act to distance yourself from the preferred genre of most high schoolers. Now, it’s not a straight forward pop punk album, as in, it would blow the mind of Paramore, but it’s still pop punk. It’s just being done with the slightest amount of perspective and maturity and what the difference it makes. One of this year’s catchiest and sing a longiest.
The First Album I Loved This Year
Damien Jurado – Brothers And Sisters Of The Eternal Son
I knew of Damien Jurado from my days of giving a crap who was on Secretly Canadian Records. I never listened to him though because I’ve yet to go through my days of giving enough of a crap of who is on Secretly Canadian Records to listen to all of them. Regardless, I came across this album early this year and it was the first release of 2014 that I bowed down to. Totally imaginative, great compositions, instrumentation, all guided by his certain voice. I feel like this album snuck under the world’s radar, which is a shame because it’s exceptionally great.
The I Should Be Liking This More Than I Am Album Of The Year
Spoon – They Want My Soul
Don’t mistake what I’m saying here, I like this album a lot. And I listened to it a lot. But too often did I feel like it was a chore to get thus album going. Like I had to complete my duties. When it was going I found myself enjoying it, but I never felt the need listen. It’s a very good album, probably my favorite from Spoon, and it seems to be critacally regarded as being their best. Because of this, I couldn’t help but feel like I wasn’t experiencing this the way the rest of the world was, and in rare form, I felt like maybe I was the one who was wrong.
The This Is Getting Worse With Every Listen Album Of The Year
Beck – Morning Phase
I loved this when it first came out. It felt like it was going to be the first Beck album I really connected with. Blue Moon is as good a single as any that came out this year and I was excited about a guy who’s made a bunch of albums making one more. So, it got me feeling weird when I started losing interest as time passed, finally culminating in a bad taste in my mouth every time I skipped over the songs when they’d come on in my playlists. I felt kind of bad. That eventually turned to feeling bothered that Beck let me down again. Hard to explain why he can’t keep my attention, but this album falls right in line with the rest of secretly snoozy albums for me.
The I Listened To This Because Of The Good Name Album Of The Year
DJ Dodger Stadium – Friend Of Mine
I know it’s the artist’s name not the album’s name that drew me in, but still, that is a very good name. And this is a good album. And it’s not something I’d normally listen to—it’s basically a techno album—but I credit all that to the name.
The Most Disappointing Album Of The Year
tUnE-yArDs – nikki nack
Hey, don’t look at me like that. I loved w h o k i l l and I like tUnE-yArDs, but I can’t even fake a smile at this one. I expected big things with this album, growth, experimentation, new themes, new territories, and I got what sounds like a bunch of w h o k i l l B-sides. A lateral move right off the field and on to the bench. I tried hard to see the good in this, it just never came together. Aw, look, she’s still wearing the face paint.
The I Don’t Care, His Voice Is Amazing Album Of The Year
Sam Smith – In The Lonely Hour
The boy can sing. And the album is enjoyable. And he went from playing rinky dink venues to preforming at the Grammys in the span of a year. Your mom likes him, your sister loves him, and I’m there with them both cheering him on. His range is unreal and all real, making him a little bundle of joy.
The I’m Not Buying It Album Of The Year
Ariel Pink – Pom Pom
Pass. The attitude is definitely a miss for me, but the songs feel kinda shotty and the album feels like he scraped the crumbs off his table and onto a napkin and offered it to you as a snack.
The I Didn’t Get It Album Of The Year
FKA twigs – LP1
Two Weeks is good but not great and Kicks is the best track on the album. Not as good as Jessie Ware.
The Of Course It’s Great Album Of The Year
Caribou – Our Love
Narrowly missed my top ten. A great album that doesn’t need me telling you it’s great for you to know it is.
Better Late Than Never
Thanks to Syro, I finally hit up the Aphex Twin catalogue. What was pinned as “very 90s” was only correct in the literal timeline. Heads up all, what they say is true, Apex Twin was(is) decades ahead in electronic music. Always down for someone taking a 14 year hiatus and then making a new album. Unless it’s like, AC/DC.
Until next year.