Records are like currency. Comprised of the same materials, we seek their intrinsic value in differing levels of reasoning: whether it be concept, talent, inspired words or moral code. Our selections for the best records of 2014 were about making sense of a year that made little of it. When the mundane needed a natural high, we sought the swift kick of Ought’s Today More Than Any Other Day. When we were in love, every moment was our favorite Future Islands song, and when we were broken it was Mitski (or yet another Future Islands song). As we watched Bill O’Reilly criticize Spike Lee for not fixing the “black situation,” the words of Open Mike Eagle were with us: “Fuck you, if you’re a white man that assumes I speak for black folks / Fuck you, if you’re a white man who thinks I can’t speak for black folks.” As police murdered young black men on- and off-camera, we had Killer Mike on CNN while Katie Alice Greer pointed a finger directly back at the problem. And when we couldn’t bear the chaos outside our doors, we retreated to our bedrooms to find Alex G and Frankie Cosmos waiting.
We sincerely hope you were able to find new value in your appreciation of music this year. Though it might have been a bleak one, we were reminded time and time again, that with music, we always had an escape. And in 2014, these are the records’ we found to be the most valuable.
Ought constructed much of Any Other Day from such reliable foundational blocks (you probably won’t read a review of this record that fails to mention David Byrne or Tom Verlaine), but they also possess an inclusive curiosity. They evaluate everyone from Wire to Wolf Parade with the same generous amount of inquisitiveness. Songs like “Clarity!” and “Gemini” even recall the extremely particular the punk gadgetry of ‘90s almost-heroes Brainiac. Yet throughout Any Other Day, there’s enough negative space and dexterity to allow listeners to intuit traces of just about any artist belonging to the post-punk lineage.
You don’t usually get to see the precise moment when a band erupts from murmur to scream. For Future Islands, it happened on camera: Their performance of “Seasons (Waiting on You)” on David Letterman’s Late Show suddenly rocketed the Baltimore trio to a wide national spotlight. In those critical minutes, singer Sam Herring held a gaze that reminded even viewers at home that Letterman’s studio was packed with living people just off-screen. He seemed completely unconscious of the cameras that leered at him. He sang with an urgency that can rarely be held by a television screen or a YouTube window. Of all the small-label standbys to break big, Future Islands is one of the strangest.
Singles, Future Islands’ fourth official full-length, is the band’s clearest, firmest work. The band toyed with indie psychedelia on previous efforts and then they grew bold enough to drop it. Rather than stay safe within trendy aesthetics, Welmers and bassist William Cashion slowly tuned their sound to bolster Herring’s exquisite affect. Before Singles, Future Islands were an indie pop band with a strange, charismatic singer. Now, they’re a cohesive force biting deep into what pop is and what it can do.
In the spirit of enduring futility comes Protomartyr’s Under Color of Official Right, a desperate, invigorating paen to resistance against our everyday demons: “Greedy bastards, rank amateur professionals, gluten fascists… recent memories,” and “terrible bartenders.” These are all on singer Joe Casey’s list for extermination in “Tarpeian Rock,” a dissonant jag named after a cliff in ancient Rome used to execute criminals and liars. Casey’s voice is a unique brand of everyman bark, the unmistakable shout of your neighbor cutting through the picket fence. It’s also remarkably versatile. The band can squint at The Spits or echo The Fall, and they also share style with their peers Tyvek. Protomartyr is exceptionally skilled at draping the starker edges of punk over pop hooks, and guitarist Greg Ahee can linger on a shimmering, solitary minor chord just enough to make Paul Banks choke.
Still, the band’s true enemy feels like cynicism. Protomartyr shouts “Stay, illusion!” not because they want it banished, but because the illusion is all we have. Live it while you can. After all, as Casey reminds us in the album’s closer “I’ll Take That Applause,” there’s “nothing ever after.”
12. Alex G, DSU (Orchid Tapes)
DSU is the first Alex G release that didn’t go straight to Bandcamp after it was recorded, instead being pressed to vinyl by the Orchid Tapes imprint—selling out of the first press in less than 24 hours. The album comes after RULES and TRICK, two self-released albums that thrust the 21-year-old Temple University student into a very small but very passionate Internet limelight, and it is both a logical progression and a staunch demonstration of faith to the bedroom pop aesthetic he has fostered thus far.
DSU retains the themes that have permeated past Alex G records: death, change, mistakes, regret, and love. It’s an overwhelmingly strong album with several stand out moments: the catchy ease of “Harvey” and “Black Hair”, the inhuman falsetto on “Rejoice”, the final heartbreaking moments of “Hollow”. The album feels deeply personal, a sense that is once again heightened by an isolated recording process. This intimacy is not necessarily inviting, though. At times, it’s even abrasive. Often drawing comparisons to The Microphones or Mount Eerie (two bands Alex Giannascoli admits to never hearing), but like his cryptic lyrics, the events of life are often inexplicable, and all we can do is accept them and continue on.
11. Perfect Pussy, Say Yes To Love (Captured Tracks)
“Since when did we all decide to give up? Since when do we say yes to love?” asks Meredith Graves halfway through “Interference Fits”, the centerpiece of her band’s masterful hardcore record, Say Yes to Love. It’s a powerful question to lift for an album’s title, especially given its context among lyrics about never wanting any children, the weirdness of watching friends fall in love and the subsequent conversations of churches and veils and wives. Perhaps the most crucial line of the song though, is one that comes and goes more quietly towards the beginning: “Nothing that comes and goes is you.” That sort of centered meditation of self-awareness is crucial to understanding an album like Say Yes—one of the year’s bravest, a collection of songs that wholly encourages finding lightness in darkness, beauty in pain, self-empowerment in a toxic, trying world. If you can’t hear it, listen closer.
10. Princess Nokia, Metallic Butterfly (Self Released)
Princess Nokia’s Metallic Butterfly is aptly named. Shedding the previous recording moniker Wavy Spice, Nokia emerged as something mature and beautiful, with the power to move her arms and cause typhoons; chaos theory made form. Her wonderful first album manages to be both declarative and inquisitive, asking “are you ok?” before telling you that you are stronger than you know. The shifting production by OWWWLS (Christopher Lare) gives the listener a thousand different forms in which to take refuge pulling on Nokia’s history in clubs, the drum and bass rhythms of “Dragons” and “Biohazard Butterfly”, the trip hop stylings of “Metallic Butterfly”, the Afro-caribbean sounds of “Bikini Weather Corazon En Africa” bump up against the modern sounds throughout the album. Yet Nokia’s messages of positivity and strength don’t end when the record stops as she works to push a framework of femininity known as Smart Girl Club; giving fellow women a platform to create their own worlds of art and friendship. All the more reason to prop up this self-assured artist to new heights in 2015.
09. Good Throb, Fuck Off (White Denim)
Pulling members from a small and highly-interconnected scene Good Throb is the sound of urban alienation pressed to vinyl and flung out a window; weaponized isolation and paranoia; less The Fall and more The Fallen. Songs such as “Acid House”, “Central Line”, and “Crab Walk” all speak to an inability to connect with the people around them as the song parts clash and bump up alongside each other, going in the same direction instead of actually functioning as songs. Good Throb’s Fuck Off is exactly what you expect from the title and cover art. It’s as perfect a modern punk album as you can ask with shambolic shifts in phrasing, spat lyrics, questionable production that results in a loose, angry half-hour which sounds less like an album and more like a group of people hanging out after work and taking their frustrations out on a recording studio.
Eighteen Hours of Static is poised to be a record that finds its place in a number of circles. A torrential debut for a young band, Static is dominant due to its searing, self-aware lyrics, pinning Joe Galarraga as the magnetic, keening frontman. It fits all of the manic energy, creepy-quietness, weird humor, and skull-ripping bursts of anger from Big Up’s manic live set, fit into a delightful take-it-anywhere package. But it succeeds on a multitude of levels, like thousands of pages of technical drawings, that when arranged correctly, form to make one monolithic machine. They set aside—or willingly bury—all that they know, all their quirks and concerns, to slavishly dedicate themselves to being as upfront and coarse as they can. They address their cerebral anxieties by pushing them to the edge. It’s that mix of sass and darkness that makes Big Ups the sort of weird animal you can’t stop staring at.
Clocking in at nearly an hour, the Adderall-bought-off-the-street raps of MC Daveed Diggs—too fast, too scary, and too weird for your average hip-hop head—are only matched by the incredible production. If Death Grips is the Father of this newfound punked-up grit-hop and Yeezus is the Son, then clipping. may have very well just staked out a place as Holy Ghost. Ethereal and trippier than the other brothers’ trinity, it’s a bit more My War than Damaged. But authenticity is, by nature, subjective and elusive. No matter how many interviews the group utilize to defend their contributions to the experimental spirit of hip hop, viewing their craft as no less inventive than early Dr. Dre or Bomb Squad, clipping. remain in the crosshairs of critics. It’s a phenomena that says more about the critic than it does about the group, and is reason enough to confidently proclaim CLPPNG as one of 2014’s best.
While Space Brothers was 22 blistering minutes of nervously pivoting from one great, yet underdeveloped, idea to the next, Hoodwink’d reigns in LVL UP’s focus, giving each song its proper due and allowing them to build a cohesive, coherent artifact. Aside from being both sonically and thematically tighter, Hoodwink’d—more than their previous efforts—showcases LVL UP’s musicianship.
Between constant self-referencing and its mostly abstract lyrics, Hoodwink’d clearly offers a lot to think about. And yet, at the same time, it doesn’t require much thinking. Ultimately, that’s the genius of this album: it’s simultaneously a totally accessible pop record—full of catchy hooks and ripping solos—and a depressing series of existential crises. The combination of the two is an album that’s both a wonderful contradiction and a must-listen.
05. Angel Olsen, Burn Your Fire For No Witness (Jagjaguwar)
Research has repeatedly proven that the Internet is making us lonelier, that exposure to watered-down interactions is actually awful for our souls, and that as a society humans have never been more isolated. Burn Your Fire For No Witness feels like an answer to a specific breed of pervasive isolation that is firmly rooted in the present. “If there’s one thing I fear, it’s knowing you’re around, so close but not with me,” Olsen sings on the twangy “Forgiven/Forgotten”, one of the record’s more upbeat moments. Perhaps the single most compelling aspect of Burn is that for all of its phantom heartbeats, forgotten dreams, and inability to connect, the record is not utterly joyless. Indeed, Olsen is full of light. There are slow-strummed moments that are numbingly depressing, but also carefully articulated moments of finding enlightenment and beauty in solitude.
04. Radiator Hospital, Torch Song (Salinas Records)
Radiator Hospital has been discreetly breaking hearts for the past few years with a number of earnestly killer EPs, but last summer’s Something Wild proved to many new listeners that Sam Cook-Parrott is one of the strongest songwriters around. His second full-band record, Torch Song, only reinforced this notion, pitting fans to debate which album is stronger. The latter revives the themes of heartbreak, rejection, and desire that Cook-Parrott so bravely confronts on past releases, but the lyrics feel more mature this time around. Not a single raucous note or fervent sentiment is careless in this record; the stakes are high and romance or heartbreak are both fresh wounds. The record moves as quickly as falling in love, but when it finally slows down for the distressingly beautiful “Fireworks”, the world feels like it is slowly crashing around you. Torch Song does nothing wrong but move you.
03. Open Mike Eagle, Dark Comedy (Mello Music Group)
Dark Comedy is impressive in that it manages to stall the world of Open Mike Eagle without lapsing into cruise control—no learning, no hugging. It’s a catch-up record for the many newcomer to his art rap that he’s earned in the past year with appearances on Marc Maron’s podcast, paling around with comedians like Hannibal Burress and Paul F. Tompkins, and eventually signing to Mello Music Group. For those on board since Unapologetic Art Rap, Mike’s fourth album is like watching Seinfeld from Day 1—we’re laughing ahead of everyone else because we know all the inside jokes. It also manages to be his strongest album to date; accessible yet uncompromising in identity. Much like audiences were initially unaccustomed to Seinfeld, Dark Comedy has the potential to be Open Mike’s Season 4. What’s beneficial for Mike Eagle are offerings like “Deathmate Black” and “Build Pretty Bridges”, which are amalgamations of writing the same song (show?) a dozen times over to share with a dedicated core only to have the perfected versions broadcast to the Neilsens.
Mitski’s third album and first release with Double Double Whammy aligns with the quality of many of the label’s releases—strong melodies and honest, biting lyrics—but it also feels like somewhat of a departure from any familiar ground. Falling somewhere amid folk, pop, and breezy electric guitar rock, Bury Me at Makeout Creek doesn’t make concessions to any one genre. In fact, it doesn’t really make concessions to anyone or anything, and its utter repulsion of convention is what makes it so appealing. What we expect from a folk singer-songwriter, or an artist on DDW, or a music composition major, is none of what we get from Mitski; what we get instead is a sublime mesh of these elements and more that’s harrowing in its strength. Mitski’s tremendous expression of vulnerability is all her own, and how we relate to it depends on who we are—no concessions made.
01. Priests, Bodies and Control and Money and Power (Don Giovanni)
Capitalism’s most pervasive consequences are so big that sometimes they can’t be seen at all—the inequality of the medical industrial complex, the injustice of the surveillance state, the grim realities of the police force. Or perhaps its that most humans would prefer to look away. Within the first minutes of Bodies and Control and Money and Power, Katie Alice Greer finds words for tensions so intangible, tearing into the fucked duality of apathy and anxiousness: “Facing fear only when you have to, consequences only when you have to / When you are thinking, ‘if I don’t I might, if I don’t I might die.'” Her frantic scream is similar on “Doctor”: “You put your fingers in other people’s mouthes all day, don’t you, doctor?” The doctor will get you sick with his dirty hands and then sell you cough syrup to fight it — it’s a jab at the professional, but also at the paranoid norms who buy into it, guilty as charged. “The cough you’ve got has a syrup / So swallow it up, swallow it up!”
Bodies shifts between tight, slow builds and explosive moments — the work of drummer Daniele Daniele, guitarist G.L. Jaguar, and bassist Taylor Mulitz. It’s a record that’s unafraid to take on political topics in direct language, and its one that feels particularly vital in the mess of a year that was 2014. “BARACK OBAMA KILLED SOMETHING IN ME, AND I’M GONNA GET HIM FOR IT,” Greer concludes near the end of the album’s closing track, “And Breeding”. In a year marked by the failures of a government that once represented such inspired hope, this song rang true over and over again. Greer’s words belong permanently in all-caps, or better yet, perpetually belted in her forceful shout.