I reached a point in 2014 when the album, as a musical document, stopped mattering to me as much as it had in the past. If I had to venture a guess when this happened I would bet it was a subconscious result of me having to cut music from my 16 GB iPhone 4s for the hundredth time to make room for new tracks.
2014 offered little in the line of defenses of the album’s necessity as an art form. In particular, the consensus albums of the year – Sun Kil Moon, the War on Drugs, St. Vincent – failed to jolt or excite me.
The albums below featured four or five songs I latched onto and loved. That is not the standard definition of an album of the year candidate, especially when that means ignoring half of a band’s new songs. Alas, my standard way of assessing what constitutes a good album, much less a favorite album of mine, is ever-changing, and does not resemble what it did, say, in 2007 or 2013, for that matter.
Without further delay say hello to my favorite albums of 2014. Also, look for my Songs of the Year and Concerts of the Year early next week.
10. Transgender Dysphoria Blues by Against Me!
The pre-release buzz centered around band leader Laura Jane Grace becoming a woman but the album’s hard-charging nature proved it could stand on its own merit. Transgender Dysphoria Blues is a case study in how to attack a difficult subject matter with gusto, which given Against Me!’s career as anarchist punks is no surprise.
9. So It Goes by Ratking
The Harlem trio’s debut record on XL managed to straddle two worlds – one, a grimier pre-Giuliani New York City, you know the one the lifers describe with a hint of sadness, and two, the present because MC Wiki and Co.’s shit bangs with verve, aggression, and more than a dash of joy, and is the new sound of the city, if the kids moshing at the Ratking show I witnessed at Glasslands were any indication.
8. Sylvan Esso by Sylvan Esso
First heard this record blasting from massive speakers in a tent at a music festival for hippies and druggie burnouts. I couldn’t think of a better place for an introduction to Sylvan Esso’s sound, given its two principles are a singer from an A capella group named Mountain Man and a member of the criminally underrated beard-folk act Megafaun. Self-titled is a record that invades some of the same headspace as The Postal Service – if that record took itself less serious – and has remained in my listening diet ever since this summer.
7. Tough Love by Jessie Ware
UK soulstress Jessie Ware produced one of my favorite debuts of the twenty-teens with Devotion. Excuse the pun but Tough Love feels like a tamer moment from Ware. So why is it on this list? While Tough Love lacks the end-to-end songcraft that made her debut an instant classic Ware’s new album still captured my attention for two main reasons, both holdovers from her debut – her vocal purity and the yearning she conveys with her voice.
6. Singles by Future Islands
I have no qualms admitting Samuel T. Herring’s spaghetti legs dancing routine on Letterman pulled me into the Future Islands tent. Singles made me a true believer once I moved beyond the novelty of the singer’s moves and his death metal growl. It’s an album that borders on being cheesy in its theatrical urges but Herring’s conviction assures this is no tasteless mock-up of 80s synth pop. Instead, it is a heart on sleeve affair – a hopeful one, a devoted one. Perhaps optimism flew out the window a long time ago but Herring’s eyes are still up, waiting.
5. They Want My Soul by Spoon
Now that the Walkmen are no more, the Strokes might as well be no more, and Interpol’s new records no longer warrant a listen, Spoon is one of the last bands standing that my college self would recognize and enjoy. While critics described They Want My Soul as a return to form I didn’t notice they left. Maybe it’s because I slept through Transference. Britt Daniel and Co. touch all the bases here – dreamy pop, slinky funk, straight ahead rock, each of which comes with Daniel’s cheeky lyrics and whisks of nostalgia, etc. They Want My Soul feels less like a comeback – or a bow for that matter – and more like the start of something. Quite the accomplishment for a band entering its third decade together.
4. Present Tense by Wild Beasts
Leave it to a band of Brits with a fanbase in the thousands to make a band more ripe with sexual longing and fulfillment than all of the American pop tarts combined. Co-vocalist Hayden Thorpe’s intro to “Mecca” says it all: “All we want is to feel that feeling again.” There’s a subtlety, a playfulness, a kind of strawberries and chocolate appeal, that dots Present Tense, as Thorpe, he of the theatrical vocals, and Tom Fleming, he of the deep from the Earth baritone, move the proceedings along at something akin to a tantric pace. Makes you wonder if Sting has heard Wild Beasts and if he’s a fan.
3. Heal by Strand of Oaks
It took one play, maybe two at most, to recognize Heal would be one of my favorite records of 2014. My former colleague Eric Heisig, a noted scholar on all things Midwest and thus all things foreign to me, recommended Strands of Oak. He was right. Bravo, Mr. Heisigberg. Heal is an at turns raucous, thoughtful, deeper than at first glance rock record in an age when rock’n’roll has all but bit the dust. Every once in a while you can hear someone having an epiphany on record. That’s what Heal sounds like; frontman Timothy Showalter having an a-ha moment, realizing what he has to say is important, and then enjoying the hell out of this newfound knowledge.
2. Burn Your Fire For No Witness by Angel Olsen
Moody, dark, foreboding, and a touch mysterious, Burn Your Fire For No Witness nevertheless also felt like a torch in the dark of night that was the year in music. Olsen’s voice quivered and howled with a quiet fury, the kind of wide-eyed wonder that rose from the Earth without fanfare. And when it did, Olsen’s music felt vital, timeless, and yet still timelier than most, a young singer-songwriter declaring herself a major talent. Olsen might not have smiled often when I saw her perform at Le Poisson Rouge earlier this year but she provided many reasons for listeners to smile.
1. Seeds by TV On The Radio
In a year when even U2’s latest steaming pile of shit won album of the year plaudits – albeit from the dubious at best Rolling Stone, which should retire its music reviews section – critical darlings TV On The Radio received precious little year-end love from the blogosphere. This collective shade is a bit baffling. Seeds did not scale the heights of Return to Cookie Mountain or Dear Science, nor did it ever claim to have set that as a goal. Instead Seeds revealed a veteran art-rock group still capable of delivering layers upon layers of intrigue even as its lyrics opted for a more straightforward turn. In anyone else’s hands the words “Everything’s gonna be alright” would sound cliché at best, a cause for cynicism at worst. In Tunde Adebempe’s hands the line becomes a rallying cry for a beleaguered world seemingly unwilling to agree upon our shared humanity. No other record moved me as much as Seeds did. No other album lifted me up as effortlessly, weightlessly, and revealed as much hope for the future or joy in the moment.