Away From the Sprawl: Best of 2014

Courtesy of Alta Loma Records
Courtesy of Alta Loma Records

This is the year things got personal.

Maybe it’s my perception, (that’s what a column is supposed to be anyway, right? Right.) but more than any year in my recent memory, the best of music in 2014 was the most honest and personal. With all the world has gone through this year, it’s easy to understand the idea of artists turning inward to escape the turmoil of the outside world, or to reflect on how it has affected them. Heck, one of the most moving personal songs of the year came as a surprise release in the wee hours of Dec. 31 in the form of a Kanye West and Paul McCartney collaboration!

I know that on a personal level for me, 2014 has presented some of the biggest changes and challenges in my life in recent memory. Putting that perspective onto a list like this inherently forms some sense of bias from the moment I write it. And truly, ranking 10 vastly different but great albums is the same as some cliche about apples and oranges. The only way to separate them, then, is to use your own personal perceptions and apply them in a way that you think adequately spaces your favorites from the best — if there even is a difference. What I’m trying to say is, no list is the right list — and that what makes them great.

With that said, here are my top albums and songs for 2014. These albums moved me, made me think, challenged my listening ideas and were also just a good time to listen to. As for the new year, Cloud Nothings gives us an apt line to find a new start: “It starts right now, there’s a way I was before / But I can’t recall how I was those days anymore.”

1. St. Vincent – “St. Vincent”

In my original review of this album, I quoted an interview with Annie Clark (aka St. Vincent) about this album where she said, “I think I’ve always tried to live at the intersection between accessibility and lunatic-fringe.” To date, this is the best description I’ve heard of St. Vincent as an artist, and never has she walked that line as well as on her self-titled fourth album. Clark seamlessly tackles topics ranging from mundane days (“Birth in Reverse”) to insecurities about the digital age (“Digital Witness,” “Huey Newton”) to severe self-doubt and depression and relationships (“Psychopath,” “Every Tear Disappears,” “Severed Crossed Fingers”). Clark’s striking, masterful guitar playing, combined with vivid, idiosyncratic lyricism and fantastic production help her capture the many different facets of lives of millennials better than any other artist this year.

2. The War On Drugs – “Lost In The Dream”

From the opening stuttering of the drum machine and dreamy guitar at the beginning of album-opener “Under the Pressure,” it is clear we are headed into the mind of a man who is anxious and unsure of himself. But on “Lost In The Dream,” the fourth album from the War on Drugs, frontman Adam Granduciel has never been so assured in expressing and exposing his innermost thoughts. The Petty and Springsteen influences are all over the album, but to call it an homage would be severely underestimating the intricacies of the album, as spacey, dreamy synths are permeated by sometimes floating, sometimes piercing guitar to explore depths of emotion that lyrics cannot convey. And while the lyrics are above average, it’s the entire production that elevates them, and proves Granduciel as one of the most intricate and interesting producers and songwriters today.

3. Cloud Nothings – “Here and Nowhere Else”

On Cloud Nothings’ fourth full-length, “Here and Nowhere Else,” nothing is drastically different. But why change a winning formula when it worked so well last time? With an almost effortless, potent blend of punk and garage rock, the band doesn’t let up for all of the LP’s eight songs and 31 minutes, with lyricist and frontman Dylan Baldi facing his problems in an admittedly more positive light than 2012’s “Attack on Memory” over chugging guitar and explosive drumming from Jayson Gerycz. The pre-chorus of closing track “I’m Not Part of Me,” — “I’m learning how to be here and nowhere else / how to focus on what I can do myself,” — is self-help rock at its finest.

4. FKA Twigs – “LP1”

Easily the best debut album of the year, FKA Twigs, also known as Tahliah Barnett, combines confessions about her insecurities and triumphs in romance, public perception and everything else into one of the most haunting, yet mesmerizing and sensual releases this year. Barnett’s vocals combine a distinct earnestness with an eerie high-pitched tone to convey self-doubt and self-confidence simultaneously, but it’s the songs’ stunning artsy R&B-via-electronic production that lend the album its true weight, as the space between the beats leaves the listener breathless and wondering what will happen — and how it will happen — next.

5. The New Pornographers – “Brill Bruisers”

“Bo-ba-bo-bo-ba-bo!” If there’s a musical equivalent of going zero to 60, the New Pornographers do so in about two seconds on their bombastic sixth LP. After the utterly consistent power-pop mainstay’s last two albums took on a slightly more somber tone, “Brill Bruisers” aimed to return to their joyous work of old. Mixing in a bit of electronic production for the first time, the group effortlessly manages their multitude of singers. Highlight track “War on the East Coast,” comes from the eccentric Dan Bejar, while the best on the album, and namely, one of the slowest songs, “Champions of Red Wine,” written by bandleader A.C. Newman, is sung with a wistful nostalgia by powerhouse vocalist Neko Case, with dreamy backup vocals from Newman and Kathryn Calder.

6. Flying Lotus – “You’re Dead!”

Easily one of the most ambitious albums of the year, Flying Lotus’ fifth album finds the producer blurring genre lines constantly while exploring what death and life mean. The most talked about, and standout track on the album, a Kendrick Lamar collaboration entitled, “Never Catch Me,” easily earns its reputation. Lamar, who has a yet-to-be-titled album likely coming out this year, spits his verses with an anxious fury, saying, “Step inside of my mind and you’ll find / Curiosity, animosity, high philosophy like the prophesized meditation.” Flying Lotus set out to show all these facets of his mind, and his evocative jazz and hip-hop production and collaborations show he’s more than up to the task.

7. Sharon Van Etten – “Are We There”

You know that an album is a bit of a downer when a line in one of its most optimistic sounding songs says, “Every time the sun comes up / I’m in trouble.” But isn’t it in sadness that we find much of our catharsis? On “Are We There,” singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten puts all her emotions, ugly or not, on full display for all to hear. Lush piano ballads and range of voice used to maximum effectiveness throughout, Van Etten shows her all-around capabilities on her first time alone in the producer’s chair.

8. TV on the Radio – “Seeds”

When TV on the Radio lost bassist Gerard Smith in 2011 to lung cancer just days after the release of “Nine Types of Light,” the band’s future suddenly had a large question mark thrown over it. Not only did 2014’s “Seeds” show the band wasn’t done yet, but it showcased a ferocious resiliency that had the band publicly grieving and letting out their inner thoughts with a group of 12 cathartic songs about love and loss.

9. Perfect Pussy – “Say Yes To Love”

Throughout the entirety of this album (all of 23 minutes long), few phrases coming from singer Merideth Grave’s mouth are understandable over tracks drenched in feedback. But even on first listen, one line, from highlight track “Interference Fits,” is loud and clear: “Since when do we say yes to love?” Actually glancing at the lyric sheet, the album is filled with confusion and desperation about relationships of life, but this clear cry in the middle of the manic noise-punk chaos captures a zeitgeist of confusion about nearly everything for millennials.

10. Weezer – “Everything Will Be Alright In The End”

This album is easily the happiest that I am happiest to be able to include in my top 10. Though I believe some of the scrutiny of the group’s efforts of the past 10 years is too harsh, it’s not a stretch to say Weezer hasn’t put together an album as good as this in quite a while. Filled with the dorkiness and introspection of classic Weezer, and a sense of self-awareness of their mixed past, Weezer proves they have something good left in the tank.

Honorable Mentions:
Bleachers – Strange Desire
Tune-Yards – nikki nack
Spoon — They Want My Soul
Interpol — El Pintor
Ty Segall — Manipulator
Tweedy — Sukierae

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Best Songs:
25. “Summer Noon” – Tweedy
24. “Leave the Door Wide Open” – Black English
23. “Rescue Song” – Mr Little Jeans
22. “Happy Idiot” – TV on the Radio
21. “War on the East Coast” – The New Pornographers
20. “Real Thing” – Tune-Yards
19. “Careful You” – TV on the Radio
18. “Caaalifornia (feat. Ghost Beach)” – French Horn Rebellion
17. “Dead Air” – CHVRCHES
16. “Content Nausea” – Parquet Courts
15. “Don’t Wanna Dance” – MO
14. “Severed Crossed Fingers” – St. Vincent
13. “Red Eyes” – The War On Drugs
12. “Afraid of Nothing” – Sharon Van Etten
11. “Champions Of Red Wine” – The New Pornographers
10. “Interference Fits” – Perfect Pussy
9. “Two Weeks” – FKA Twigs
8. “Birth In Reverse” – St. Vincent
7. “All The Rage Back Home” – Interpol
6. “I Wanna Get Better” – Bleachers
5. “Seasons (Waiting On You)” – Future Islands
4. “Only One (feat. Paul McCartney)” – Kanye West
3. “I’m Not Part of Me” – Cloud Nothings
2. “Under The Pressure” – The War On Drugs
1. “Never Catch Me (feat. Kendrick Lamar)” – Flying Lotus

 

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