The best albums of 2014 thus far
As we hit the halfway point in 2014, we asked some of our music writers to discuss their picks for the best albums so far this year. In an effort to give them a bit of a challenge, we asked them to give us one album per month, and from monstrous rock albums to the quietest and most reflective records, make sure you’ve given your ears all of the amazing songs below.
Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks, “Wig Out At Jagbags”
Filled with quirky lyrics and some of the most addictive musical hooks in years, this is the sort of record that you want to play over and over again. From the eccentric sing-along that is “The Janitor Revealed” to the masterpiece of “Cinnamon And Lesbians,” this album is just a great on a road trip as it is relaxing by a crackling fire.
As each song goes by, you’ll find yourself turning it up and wondering how Malkmus can possibly still be this good. Whether you’re already a fan of his solo work, a Pavement devotee, or never even heard of this genius, your ears will love you forever once this album is in your possession.
For all the charm of Hospitality’s 2012 self-titled debut, it was plain that the band was holding back. While there were pregnant pauses, the band never really fell silent. That album was imbued with the thrill of opportunity and the desire to get everything just right.
The notes were sweet and the drama that vocalist Amber Papini hinted at in her tales of an aimless post-graduate existence, of life under heavy debt in an expensive city, and of professional jealousy was genuine, but anti-climactically realized, like an over-choreographed wedding.
Trouble is more in all the right places.This time out, Papini makes sure that all the feelings are fully felt. The chasms of quiet, as on the otherwise characteristically raucous opener, “Nightingale,” are not just deep enough for wallowing, they’ll swallow you up. This new found expansiveness betrays none of the husky more-with-less confidence of Papini’s voice. On the contrary, by obscuring each songs destination she achieves a naturalism more befitting the content of her lyrics, which find miracles in the mundane.
Often compared to a musical oil painting, dripping across a canvas, you only need to hear a few notes on this album to understand why that remains such an accurate representation of their sound. More than almost any other album this year, the vocals blend perfectly into the sonic landscape, giving the songs more depth and range than you can handle, and completely surrounding you in the best way possible.
Warpaint is also a group that clearly understands how to make a full sound without overdoing things, and it’s the balance between the different elements that makes this album so rewarding. From beginning to end, this is a sonic journey you’ll want to take again and again, so go grab this one!
Lionize, “Jetpack Soundtrack”
This year, Jetpack Soundtrack has been filling that role. Rocking hard, yet uniquely from beginning to end, this is one of the few albums that truly has something for everyone that loves music.
Whether it’s the bouncing organ lines, the often monstrous guitar riffs or the fantastic lyrics, there’s nothing about this album you’ll less than love. To be quite honest, your summer parties and drives are sorely lacking if this album is not part of them, as every track explodes with a bright energy you’ll absolutely love. Beyond just this album, the progression the band have been on over their last few records suggests that their next release will be nothing short of a masterpiece, so get hip to them now!
Greg Ashley, “Another Generation of Slaves”
Like Leonard Cohen by way of East River Pipe, Greg Ashley’s Another Generation of Slaves aims for the heart, but hits the gut just as often. With jazzy backing from the John Brothers Piano Company, Ashley sets the stage for a Dixieland Dystopia.
Happy to play the bastard, Ashley obliterates romance time and time again, chasing romance and nostalgia from the tales of woe he tells, all while keeping a pep in his step. Four years in the making, the songs here are more traditional in structure and content than Ashley’s previous efforts, which were psychedelic, experimental, and immediate. The act of premeditation suits Ashley.
As a naming device, Ashley often uses “Medication” and a number to title his songs. The inclusion of “Medication #7″ on the album is a reminder that AGoS is but an installment in Ashley’s large, weird canon, but the album itself sets a new high-water mark for whatever Ashley does next.
Beck, “Morning Phase”
It did not disappoint in the least, and it’s one of those rare recordings that manages to get more and more beautiful every time you give it a spin. The melodies soar in grand fashion across every song, and the level of emotion to be found in Beck’s voice remains second to none. These orchestrations completely surround you, pulling you deep into the moods he explores, and while they are often those of sorrow and pain, there is this gorgeous humanity to every second.
While folks like Jack White get credit for their endless musical creativity, you’d be hard pressed to find a more diverse catalog than that of Beck, and this album remains a contender for Best Of The Year.
Eternal Summers, “The Drop Beneath”
“The Drop Beneath” is a fantastic collection of reverberating guitars and soothing vocals. “Gouge” and “Never Enough” are beautiful pop songs that find a way to haunt you in subtle ways—a moody bridge or a menacing pedal effect.
The album weaves beautiful sounds into aggressive guitar (“Make It New”), calm, collected vocals (“Not For This One”), and the excellent musicianship of a band that operates like a well-oiled machine, jamming effortlessly (“100” and “The Drop Beneath”). “The Drop Beneath” is a journey of an album from a mature group operating at full-stream.
Withered Hand, “New Gods”
On New Gods, Dan Willson, who performs as Withered Hand, chronicles the thankless, lonely life of the traveling troubador. It’s oft-tread territory, but Willson breathes new life into it by conveying his cynicism in such sweet tones. Proving his deftness, he doesn’t re-invent the wheel because he doesn’t need to.
Willson eschews quirks and gimmickry, striving instead for genuine intimacy. This seemingly general approach offers little in the way of footholds or jumping-on points, but listening is believing. The inspired juxtaposition of a lively number like “King of Hollywood” (“Tonight I can feel the big stars/ through the soles of my shoes.”), against a tearjerker like “California” (“I keep sipping’ on the Tussin like I’m sick again.”) serves the dual purpose of showcasing his versatility, while explaining just why he does it (and what it does to to him).
Freddie Gibbs, “Piñata”
No matter how good the flow is, if the beat sucks, I just can’t get into it. That’s why when a new release featuring master producer Madlib comes around, I’ve got to give it a listen (not to mention the strength of Gibbs’ “Thug Till It’s Over” that got me interested to begin with).
Unsurprisingly, Gibbs and Madlib deliver. The beats feel distinct (from each other and from the rest) and complement Gibbs’ powerful rhythm while also serving it—neither overpowering it nor meandering in the background. Clocking in at an hour, the biggest flaw here is probably editing, but hip-hop heads from Kanye diehards to Odd Future weirdos can probably find something here to groove to.
Mac Demarco, “Salad Days”
Like onions and ogres, Mac Demarco is layered and with every album he strips away some of the persona that stared at us from the cover of “Rock and Roll Night Club.”
Not that there was anything wrong with the old goofy Mac, but “Salad Days” offers us the best glimpse so far of Mac’s earnest songwriting chops. Tracks like “Salad Days” and “Let Her Go” are mellow, jangly pop that show a logical step from “2,” while “Passing Out Pieces” and “Chamber Of Reflection” are intriguing new experiments from the man who brought us “Baby’s Wearing Blue Jeans.”
Jeffertitti’s Nile, “The Electric Hour”
This record represents one of the two musical secrets I was lucky enough to let my friends in on this year, as time will prove this record to be an absolute classic.
It’s actually one of the few records we reviewed in its entirety this year, and if you’re into what we’ve dubbed “Transcendental Space-Punk Doo Wop,” then this is the number one album you need to purchase. It’s full of riffs that run the gamut from crushing grand sounds to serpentine explorations that truly take your mind for a trip.
The vocals bring a slight fuzz that make these songs all the better, and it is one of those records that cannot be played loudly enough. Whether you’re into rock, jazz, blues, funk, psychedelic or pretty much any other genre, this is a true gem of a recording that you have to check out.
Avey Tare’s Slasher Flicks, “Enter the Slasher House”
It would be easy to say “Listen to this if you like Animal Collective” of AnCo vocalist Avey Tare’s side-project Avey Tare’s Slasher Flicks.
Admittedly, “Slasher House” offers up the psychedelic pop fare that AnCo fans will likely appreciate, but the tracks are anything but “Centipede HZ” b-sides. Underneath the familiar, maximalist production is a set of tracks that feel unique and new.
The percussion is largely acoustic and lends an air of spontaneity to tracks like “Strange Colores” and “A Sender” thanks to Ponytail drummer Jeremy Hyman. Angel Deradoorian, of Dirty Projectors fame, provides a heavy dose of synths and keyboards while Tare shreds on the guitar. The result is one of the most twisted rock soudns of the year so far.
The Both, “The Both”
After years spent in each others’ orbits Aimee Mann and Ted Leo first performed together on Tom Scharpling’s Best Show on WFMU.
Though the Both had not yet been conceived, it’s fitting that the duo’s debut was on a program where warmth and inclusiveness were extended only to those who met Scharpling’s exacting standards of character. Scharpling’s assessment, as usual, was dead on. Mann and Leo are the best of the best; master’s of their respective and distinctive voices. Given that distinction, it’s a joy to hear them blend those voices so completely on the Both.
As would be expected, the songs often deal in brutal honesty and heartbreak, but the album’s takeaway is unabashed optimism. “Volunteers of America, ” for example, seems to posit catharsis through service. Their chemistry is such that, even in reaching for the personal, they achieve the anthemic.
Kikagaku Moyo, “Forest Of Lost Children”
When asked to name the best record of the year so far, this one is my runaway winner, as it is as close to a perfect album as I’ve heard in a very long time.
It’s also one of the few albums that regardless of who I play it for, it connects to the point that an on-the-spot purchase is usually made. The record gently eases you into what will be an unparalleled musical adventure, and the layered guitars and vocals are something that needs to be experienced firsthand to be properly appreciated. The band covers sonic ground showing influences from everything from early Black Sabbath to Piper-era Pink Floyd to the alt-rock explosion of the early 90’s.
Honestly, there are no words that can do justice to the sheer brilliance found on this album, so go check it out for yourself and you can thank us later.
Watery Love, “Decorative Feeding”
From Kurt Vile and the War on Drugs to Purling Hiss and Far Out Fangtooth, Philadelphia’s underground has produced some of the most interesting and confident Rock of the last few years. The plodding, lo-fi, hardcore-tinged Watery Love is next among those exports.
Having proven their mettle among the Siltbreeze set, Watery Love has put their first full length on offer through In The Red. In doing so, they’ve set another far flung boundary on Philadelphia’s sonic spectrum. Full of adolescent bluster, Decorative Feeding douses like a Super-Soaker full of rancid testosterone. Watery Love can make a case on the strength of their enthusiasm alone.
Whether you agree with their with-us-or-against-us politics or their assaultive, insulting methodology, its tempting to side with them solely as insurance against finding yourself in their crosshairs.
Sharon Van Etten, “Are We There”
When she released the single of “Your Love Is Killing Me” before the album was released, it was very obvious that this record was going to be extremely special, and for those not yet aware of Sharon Van Etten, this is your call to action.
The record overflows with mind-blowing vocal work over some of the most entrancing orchestrations you’ll find anywhere, and to say you can get lost in these songs is a massive understatement. The number of times your jaw will hit the ground upon first listen is difficult to count, as the album gets better and better, delivering some of the most wonderfully heartbreaking sounds ever captured on tape.
The level of raw talent in every aspect is tough to top, and in an era filled with artificial vocals and words, Sharon Van Etten stands as a reminder of how extraordinary raw, honest performance can be.
clipping.’s jagged, angular flavor of Hip-Hop is more aggressive than aspirational. From Daveed Diggs’ first percussive verse on clipping.’s sophomore effort, CLPPNG, the anger is felt.
In the world of CLPPNG, there is virtue in violence, but amid the blips and damage the direction and intent is often lost, as violence tends to play out in the real world.While it would seem that Diggs’ rapid, measured flow would be hindered by the glitched production provided by Jonathan Snipes and William Hutson, the opposite is true. Diggs powers through, underscoring the angular perseverance endemic to clppng.
Dub Thompson, “9 Songs”
I heard about Dub Thompson early this month and it’s all I can listen to.
The tracks are raw and even abrasive or discordant at times but keep me coming back to them because they feel authentic and sincere, like the candid recordings of teen angst incarnate. In a hair under half an hour, Dub Thompson covers ground from the the psych-rock “No Time” to the spoken-word funk freakout of “Dograces” and so on and so forth. To say the least, it’s the perfect soundtrack to a reckless, ballsy summer. Go try new things.
Greys, “If Anything”
I will freely admit that I’d not heard of this band until this record crossed my path, but the moment I heard it, I sought out the rest of their albums.
Bringing the ferocity of Fugazi with the sheer noise of Sonic Youth, all combined with a heavy influence from Nirvana, and the sound created by this band is nothing short of stunning. It’s also an album that refuses to let up, pummeling the listener with a constant barrage of heavy guitar and ferocious vocals, which for those who appreciate such sounds, makes this record a dream come true.
Once you hear these songs, the timid, restrained nature of many of the current “big” rock bands will become obvious, and if these songs don’t get you energized and excited, we suggest seeing a medial professional.