As always, a disclaimer before we get to the list: this is by no means a “best of” list. Like most years, there was a ton of solid albums released – heck, my on-going 2014 playlist was 196 songs in length.
Now, to be honest, that was a catch-all playlist featuring any album that I got a few spins out of this year. I took that huge beast of a playlist though, and sifted through it to find the albums that I spent the most time with this year (I also utilize my Last.FM charts to track how many times I listened to each album, etc.)
That’s how I like these lists: not a grand statement of how the artistry on display within was superior to all others this year, but rather a handful of albums that stayed in my heavy-rotation from release to year-end. These records got tons of play in my headphones, so maybe they’ll do the same for you!
Your mileage may vary, but as always if you think an album sounds interesting, click on the artist and album title to be taken to a sample track!
Plus: if you’re on Rdio, you can stream a selection of tunes from these records through this link!
Okay, now let’s get to it:
At this point, that an album could be borne of a cross-internet collaboration is by no means an anomaly (see: Postal Service, Aloha, and many others.) That one could spring forth from such a collaboration sounding so, well, organic might be a bit more surprising.
Halasan Bazar and Tara King met through the persistence of Moon Glyph‘s label-head, and the rest as they say is history. Their album 8 is a melting pot of Stereolab-esque french pop, deep-throated spy howls, extended vibraphone-n-organ led drone-jams, and soaring psych duets. It’s all rendered in lush, pitch-perfect production, and certainly stands as one of the more eclectic and enjoyable releases of the year. Don’t sleep on it!
Speaking of psychedelic tunes that fuse retro-futuristic vibes with a decidedly Stereolab-influenced sound: The Soundcarriers released Entropicalia!
Earlier in the year, I stumbled upon their wonderful 2010 album Celeste and completely fell in love with their thumpy-bass lines, chiming guitars and impeccably arranged flourished of jazz-drumming. Throw in a heavy dollop of Californian sunshine-pop songwriting, and you’re getting pretty close to the sound heard on Entropicalia – which could very well be their most confident set of songs yet.
To continue our game of segues here, on the topic of California let’s take a quick look at Hard Girls’ A Thousand Surfaces. After serving as the backing band for Jesse Michaels‘ Classics of Love (which appeared on a past year-end list of mine, by the by), Hard Girls stepped out on their own with a few short releases and built a major reputation as a blazing live-act.
Now, their full-length has dropped, and boy does it shred. This is straight up raucous post-punk influenced indie rock that is just stuffed with vocal hooks and furiously catchy guitar melodies. When they’re not channeling the fury of early Wire or the grab-bag nature of GBV, the’re shouting along some gang-vocals that could leave a packed hole-in-the-wall basement show vibrating with energy.
I present to you, the best Weezer album of the year!
Jokes aside, Rozwell Kid‘s Too Shabby is a huge slab of over-powered mega-riffs, high flying hooks and showboat guitar solos.
Get into it ASAP, because it’s one of the most maddeningly addictive albums of the year. If the crunchy-hooks of Blue Album-era Weezer seem like a fading memory, Too Shabby will have you reaching for your volume knob and wishing it had a notch for 11.
On Happy Diving‘s Big World, the Bay Area band’s debut full-length, wailing guitar solos slice through walls of sludge while slacker power chords shred along happily. There were plenty of names to check in the reviews for this album, as the press release notes both Cloud Nothings and Weezer – but you’d be remiss to skip over the noise-pop of Dinosaur Jr. (see: “Big World”), Mudhoney’s textural assault, and even Joyce Manor’s singalongs (see: “Sad Planet”).
Ever since I drafted up a quick review for this LP earlier in the year, it has been a go-to for me. This is one band you should be keeping your eyes and ears on.
I present to you, the best Constantines album of the year!
Again, just kidding, but one listen to the Philadelphia band’s latest (out via SideOneDummy) and you’ll be reminded of all the best elements of the aforementioned – and sorely missed – band. From anthemic and cathartic hooks to the ebb and flow of their instrumentals, everything on display inside Restorations’ LP3 just plain works. It’s all delivered through the kind of gruff, denim-clad punk that you’ve come to expect from such a reliable band as Restorations.
I’m going to assume that you’ve already read a ton of people write about Run The Jewels 2, so I’ll just admit that I was super late to the game with their first record. So, listening to them both was almost like I had the best double-album length rap record of the year. Yup, pretty great.
Since the formation of Mazes in 2009, the Manchester band have been quietly-prolific – that is, releasing a handful of LPs and EPs that have all been thoroughly solid and, unfortunately, a pinch overlooked. Their latest record, Wooden Aquarium, was recorded live-off-the-floor by Parquet Courts‘ producer Jonathan Schenke who kept overdubs to a minimum while first-takes were preferred.
Mazes often play with the meter of Kraut, but never let their material stretch too far, or grow tired. Instead, brief flourishes of new-wave and post-punk (see: the angular finale of “Salford”) brush up against the coolly psychedelic (as heard on “Vapour Trails”.) The result, is one of the best guitar-pop albums of the year.
If you long for the days when indie-pop records meant a bevvy of hooks to sort through and the kind of layered and interlocking guitar lines that will have you reaching for your guitar to figure them out, then Wooden Aquarium is for you.
Tops‘ groove-pop album Picture You Staring opens with one of the best musical moments of the year: when “Way To Be Loved’s” percussion jumbles and synth notes kick in, it’s easy to be unsure about what will follow – but when they drop out, and that funky guitar-line kicks in with a subtle but head-nodding beat… dang. Toss a major chorus on this thing, and you’ve got an absolute gem.
Thankfully, the rest of the album is no slouch either, which comes complete with some great 80s vibes (“Circle the Dark”) and soft-pop galore (“Driverless Passenger”). One of the better collections of throwback-tunes out there this year.
Maybe my appreciation of the latest PS I Love You album has something to do with how I first heard it: Paper Bag Records had a stall at a local market, and as I was browsing their vinyl selection, the guy running it asked me if I liked PS I Love You. When I told him I did, he handed me a cassette copy of the new album, not due out for another few months. When I listened to it on my girlfriend’s tape deck that weekend, it sounded distant and muddled – but the songs cut clear through the format like a ray of light.
I’ve been a fan of the band in the past, but it was clear to me immediately that this is their finest record yet. Taking time to stretch out and throw some more curve-balls into their distorted-attacks, For Those Who Stay is a remarkable achievement. I wouldn’t have expected this album from the band who were blowing out amps at CMW when I saw them a few years back, but with more dynamics on display (from full-on psych-rock freak-outs, to acoustic tracks, and “Afraid of the Light’s” choral-esque intro) their sound is as potent as ever.
For Those Who Stay is a must-listen.
Eliot Lipp‘s album Watch The Shadows was the last LP to secure a spot on my list this year – and for good reason. Within the space of about a week, his latest record of electronic tunes has shot straight to the top of my heavy rotation. Much like his incredible LP Shark Wolf Rabbit Snake, Watch The Shadows again sounds playfully sublime – the former record made jumping from genre-to-genre sound like a wink and a nod, while the latter plays its eclecticism a bit more straight. Which isn’t to say it’s not slyly funny as well – when huge synths and double-time hi-hats crop up, it’s hard not to smile. Watch The Shadows is easily one of the most enjoyable electronic records of the year.
Of course I’m going to latch onto a record that has a track called “VHS.chords” which also starts with the bleep of a Nintendo Gameboy booting up. Submerse‘s debut record Slow Waves is a goddamn dream – it’s the kind of electronic album I can put on repeat for an entire day and be completely happy.
It’s a hard one to distinguish though – is it a Downtempo Album? Instrumental Hip-Hop? 2-Step? Glitch? How about all of the above, and more? A carefully applied grainy haze blankets every track on Slow Waves, which only highlights the downright nostalgic tone which permeates through the record. When I say grainy haze though, I don’t mean the kind that obscures and distracts. Every layer – and there are many – on Slow Waves can be heard, and none are irrelevant. It’s pure candy for the headphone set.
Lusine‘s Arterial is only four songs long, but coming on the heels of one of the best albums of 2013, I’ll take it. I’m not sure what else to say about Lusine that I haven’t already said, but Jeff Mcilwain‘s music is some of the smoothest you’ll hear in the electronic genre. The title track builds in such an organic way, you almost miss how wonderful the synth-work going on is.
Lusine has done what can often be impossible in this genre: to create a sound all his own, while still utilizing the building blocks that makes this music so enjoyable. When you hear a Lusine song, you totally and completely recognize it. That’s something special.
Delay’s album Circle Change – which lands via the always-reliable Salinas Records – contains plenty of super cathartic, riff-based indie-rock/pop-punk that should please fans of Good Luck, The Hotelier, The Weakerthans, and more. The Columbus, Ohio band are a bit of a peculiar bunch, their earlier work found them thrashing through pop tunes with youthful abandon, but Circle Change sees them maturing – yes, this means slower, longer songs that are further stripped down to their basics.
While it may take a spin or two to fully appreciate where these songs are going, their melodic approach to emotionally engaging songwriting remains – and that has made it one of the best sleeper hits of the year, for me.
Radiator Hospital are another band that in the past have melded the emotions perfectly into hooky indie rock (see “Our Song” from their previous album Something Wild). They’re not suffering from a case of the sophomore slump on Torch Song though, as everything that worked on the former record is back – and with a vengeance.
Featuring guest spots from Katie & Allison Crutchfield, Maryn Jones of All Dogs, Kyle Gilbride of Swearin’ (among others), Torch Song is an album of late-eighties/early-nineties infused power-pop with a huge heart that will surely be a major hit among fans of the aforementioned guests and their own output.
Sam has a knack for crafting majorly emotional songs that pack a addictive melodic wallop. Much like the progression of Waxahatchee and Swearin’, Radiator Hospital’s Torch Song is a pretty big step forward from an already-great beginning.
The Bad Plus have long-since been my favourite modern jazz act. Their debut album These Are The Vistas continues to be a classic in my eyes, and I’ve never understood the criticisms about their quirky covers of popular songs (“Smells Like Teen Spirit”, “Heart of Glass”, etc.) The Bad Plus were one of the first acts I got into who worked with the deconstruction and reconstruction of music – the way they play with melodies but refused to connect them, rather circling around them in wonderful and interesting ways before finally lining them up was eye-opening to me. On Inevitable Western, The Bad Plus continue to play with these ideas, becoming both more and less accessible as time goes on.
“Gold Prisms Incorporated” has one of the more straightforward melodies of the entire record, which is sure to grab non-jazz heads from the get-go, but how about the distorted and atonal free-jazz moments that come later? Some may turn their backs on the track, but when they round back into a straight-forward, slam-bang groove at the end of the track, wow.
Inevitable Western sees this power-trio of jazz giants continually pushing themselves forward in exciting ways.
This album is fresh as hell.
Sick beats and fantastic lyricism (with more than a few classic gaming, kung-fu and comic book nods) in a total throwback crew-rap style. Gold PP7s – yes, those Gold PP7s – is probably the most straight up fun hip-hop album I’ve heard this year.
It’s no wonder they name-drop plenty of classic-era hip-hop references, because the crew-vibe from records like Quality Control is on display here in full force. It may be a little long (15 tracks round out the running time of a full hour), but the varied beats and vocalists on display keep things engaging throughout.
This is the hip-hop album to toss on at your next party.
You wouldn’t be able to guess from the sound of Tiger Jaw’s Charmer that it was made by a band in total transition (having lost more than half the band members just before recording). All the different sounds and elements on here – from the crunch of 90s-inspired indie-rock, the blast of aughts-era punk and emo, to the smoother more melodic moments – all coalesce together really well.
While it may be almost completely different from their previous records – which to be honest, I do like, but are more straightforward to a fault at times – it’s another record from 2014 that shows a band taking a huge and confident step forward.
Plus, there’s a ton of Twin Peaks references in here, so it’s got that goin’ for it too.
Marvin Berry & The New Sound play fast and furious garage-rock with plenty of power-pop and surf-rock licks bouncing around energetically throughout the entirety of Bootleg. It’s all over in about 27 minutes, but the lasting impression is massive. With plenty of reverberating string-snaps on “Know My Role”, and some rollicking Country-esque vibes featured on “Hawaiian Punch”, Bootleg is a well-rounded kick to the face. If you were similarly disappointed with the latest Black Lips album, you might find something to love here on Bootleg.
Archie Powell & The Exports released one of the most underrated power-pop albums of 2012 with Great Ideas in Action, but with a full beard and an album title that both references classic rock as well as calling to mind a bleaker sound, they’re back with the furious and dark Back In Black. Playing its hand early, the album opens with “Everything’s Fucked”, which explodes with fuzzy distortion everywhere – even on the vocals – and ends just after some furious solo-work.
From there, the album alternates between the heaviness – both lyrically and musically – of tracks like “Lean” and “Mambo No. 9” and the more familiar power-pop of “Lean” and “Tattoo My Brain”. When all is said and done, it’s a nice surprise with plenty of varied tones to keep listeners on their toes – all while keeping them tapping along.
Downliners Sekt‘s album Silent Ascent quite literally helped me avoid minor panic-attacks this year. On a number of occasions, I felt my anxiety levels hitting a peak and listening to Silent Ascent on headphones in a dark room worked wonders calming me back down. It’s such a soothing record – can an album be ‘the most soothing of the year?‘ Well, if one can, then Silent Ascent is that record.
It’s also an extremely textural album, full of hisses and fuzz – but not in an overbearing way. The garage beats give the entire album a sense of drive, even when they pair down to the point of almost disappearing. This allows the album to function on both ends of that spectrum – as relaxing, more passive listening (i.e. in that dark room, alone) or something to dive into with headphones on a good jog. If you listen to one ambient techno record this year, make it Silent Ascent.
I didn’t know it at first, but Todd Terje spent a whole decade releasing nothing but singles and remixes before putting out his debut It’s Album Time. I guess it makes sense, because while the record plays with genres like toys, it never feels like the work of an artist dabbling for the first time. When Todd drops some 70s italian funk vibes down in front of you, rarely does it feel forced. Nor when he brings some jazzy vibraphones in, or when he goes straight-up 80s dance-floor on tracks like “Delorian Dynamite”. It’s Album Time is like a kaleidoscope of dense aural entertainment.
Upon turning on the new album by Pure X called Angel, you’re welcomed by a suitably familiar sound – some hushed acoustic strumming, brightly plucked lead guitar lines, and floating bass licks. Then, as the soft and chanted vocals arrive, you’ll probably be thinking “Wow, these guys really dig Real Estate.” If you were to give up on the band after this knee-jerk reaction though, you’d be missing out on one of the most subtly effective albums I’ve heard all year – even including the latest from Real Estate themselves.
I say this, because Angel creeped up on me something fierce. It’s not often that music this relaxed features songwriting that grabs you as much as this stuff does. The album fully clicked for me on “Livin’ The Dream”, when two and a half minutes into the song, the tempo drops, the bass goes fluid, and the real hook starts. My ears perked up, and the rest of the record instantly made complete and total sense. Definitely give this one a go, and let it ride for a few tracks – you’ll probably be happy you did.
Every Time I Die‘s From Parts Unknown crept up on me. Actually, their whole career has kind of crept up on me, in some regards. I got into Hot Damn! back when heavily aggressive music was pretty new to me. I’ve followed them from album to album, loving some and liking others, but I wouldn’t have expected From Parts Unknown to be as good as this.
After adding some southern-stoner metal vibes on their last two albums, ETID (mostly) return to spazzed-out metalcore insanity on their seventh album. And oh, what a return it is! It’s so great, your neck will hurt from headbanging your way through all 30 minutes of the record.
Direct Effect‘s Twitter Bio says nothing aside from “grungey hardcore weed rock”, and meanwhile in the fuse-blowing video for “[ ]”, one of the first things shown is their singer casually smoking weed out of his pipe. With this emphasis on pot-consumption, you might think Direct Effect will sound like a rambling, sludge influenced metal band, but in actuality Sunburn explodes out of the gates as one of the best hardcore-punk albums of the year.
By the time “Thoughts of Honey” comes to it’s cacophonous conclusion – sounding like the band members have finally exerted their last amount of energy and just collapsed on the floor – it’s clear how powerful an experience listening to Sunburn is.
This is raw, unfiltered attitude pressed to vinyl.
One of the most underrated rock bands currently writing and performing returned in 2014, with their first album in about four years. Call Me Lightning‘s previous LP When I Am Gone My Blood Will Be Free was an insanely energetic piece of post-punk-meets-The–Who awesomeness. In fact, the band hasn’t put out a dud of an album in their entire career, from 2004’s The Trouble We’re In up to Human Hell.
I can’t speak about this band without bringing up their drummer, Shane Hochstetler. Call Me Lightning’s music is built upon spry riff’n’power-chord slashing coupled with fluid bass-lines, but Shane’s unreal drumming is so goddamn perfect, it’s insane. He peppers his rhythm tracks with copious amounts of Moon-style rolls, brief tempo diversions and unexpected fills – ensuring that there will be at least three to four moments per song that will make you want to jump out of your chair and high-kick whoever is nearest to you. His talent cannot be understated on their previous album (I’ve often gone on record saying it’s one of my favourite drum performances of the past decade) and thankfully, he and the entire band are back in full-force here – having crafted another set of wallpaper-peelingly great rock-and-roll.
It’s probably a testament to how predictable I can be with my musical tastes that the new Bleeding Rainbow grabbed my ears as quickly as it did when I heard it earlier this year.
Noisy, scrappy indie-rock with infectious guy/girl vocal hooks and guitars so loud you can almost see the stacks of amps and guitar pedals in front of you? Um, yes please. For 33 minutes, Interrupt rocks the fuck out while wearing its influences clearly – the drive of [pick one seminal 90s reference: Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth, Pavement, Merge Records] meets the textural aesthetic of [pick one shoegaze/lo-fi band: My Bloody Valentine, Swirlies, Eric’s Trip, etc.]
This one should keep your head nodding through the winter break, for sure.
I wrote about Speedy Ortiz‘s full-length in last year’s record round-up – comparing them to everyone from Polvo and Sleater-Kinney to Built to Spill. These comparisons continue on Real Hair, a 4-song teaser of more to come (hopefully) from this immensely talented band. Opener “American Horror” is a stand-out, with angular riffs and pummeling drums aplenty. Speedy Ortiz only seem to get better and better with every release – and their debut was a decidedly accomplished record in its own right.
Their music continues to play with tension and release in ways that many bands can only dream of executing. If you skipped over their debut, make sure you catch up with Speedy Ortiz on Real Hair, as it’d work as a great introduction.
I was hotly anticipating this one for quite a while. You’re Gonna Miss It All is the second album of midwestern-emo influenced indie-rock/punk from Modern Baseball. These youngsters are two-for-friggin’-two on great records stuffed with funny, clever, almost embarrassing-how-relatable-they-can-be lyrics and infectious hooks.
It’s also the kind of record that deftly balances its lyricism between the witty and verbose, and cuttingly blunt and honest. When Brendan Lukens sings “I hate worrying about the future, because all my fuckin’ problems are based around the past” on opener “Fine, Great”, it’s all too easy to relate. You’re Gonna Miss It All is an album about getting in over your head, falling apart, fucking up, worrying too much, and how ultimately human these feelings, relationships and experiences are.
Anyone who’s shared a good, deep conversation over some beers will find something to nod their head, understandingly, to. It doesn’t hurt that it’s also goddamn undeniably catchy.
Attention: pop-punk haters need not apply, thanks for reading this far, see you next year, etc. etc. etc.
Okay, now that they’re outta here, Banner Pilot‘s album Souvenir was the album that I could not put down for the final half of the year. It’s true that they can technically be described as a derivative band who have maintained a fairly steady sound throughout their career – but Souvenir is definitely their most polished and consistent effort to date.
Yes, Souvenir sounds a lot like a band who loves Dillinger Four’s CIVILWAR. Yes, if you don’t know much about pop-punk you might compare some moments on Souvenir to any number of wussier pop-punk acts. But when the choruses land as heavily as they do on songs like “Elegy”, “Shoreline”, “Colfax”, and “Modern Shakes”, I seriously don’t give a damn.
This album rules, and I don’t care if you don’t like it, because I love it and can’t stop listening to it. I think I’ll go listen to it right now, actually.
Thanks again for reading through my list, and hopefully you’ve discovered an album or two that you dig. What were your favourite records this year? Add ’em to the comments!