Friday, December 26, 2014

Best Albums of 2014 (Albums 10-1)

My music-loving friends and I had many a conversation this year in regards to how it was a "slow year." It seems we all kept waiting for that life-changing album to surprise us and, while there were some solid albums released, the life-changer never arrived. Certainly the top few will withstand the test of time despite the bands' freshness and certainly the releases from tried and true artists (Spoon, Beck, and The New Pornographers) will be stand outs in their large catalogs.

But I suppose that's how music releases go; we can't always have as heavy hitting a year as 2013. So why make a list on a slower year? Or, why make lists of music releases at all? Well, I mostly view it as a way to celebrate and share the creative outputs of the last year even if ranking them is a flawed system.

It should be noted that the top spot was a fairly easy pick for me this year. And I included the late 2013 releases by Beyonce (a surprise release) and Childish Gambino. I don't like "breaking the rules" but they were top listens in 2014 so I'm going to do what I want. All qualifiers out of the way, enjoy my list of my favorite 20 albums from 2014!

Albums 20-11 can be found here.

10. Phantogram - Voices
I will easily give Phantogram the "best live act" award for the year. Jorjette and I were able to catch them at the 9:30 Club this past fall and they brought about as much punch as possible. The lights were all over the place. The band was wholly dedicated to their performance. I first heard Phantogram four years ago when they opened for The Antlers. Moving from a keyboard/guitar/vocals and strobe light to where they are now is just fantastic. Good for them.

9. Beck - Morning Phase
I've always been a half-hearted listener of Beck. Very late in the game, I got into his 1990's album, Odelay, and I've given his last few albums a few spins on Spotify. With it being a slower year for music, I decided to give Morning Phase a deeper listen than his other albums and I'm glad I did. A slower album of his, there are plenty of beautiful cuts. And true to its name, the album is great in the morning: I found myself listening to it while walking across campus and driving by myself and found the album to be a perfect album for early in the day. Lastly, we caught Beck in concert this summer and, well, he's still got it.

8. Childish Gambino - Because the Internet
I originally had a hard time getting into Childish's music and it was a slow appreciation with Because the Internet, Gambino's second full release. He's not generally respected by critics. Rap music's origins stem from the oppressed black narrative, giving the genre a grittiness and level of authenticity greater than many others and, well, Donald Glover (Gambino's non-stage name) had a fairly stable upbringing, attended NYU's writing program, and had a lot of success in TV writing and acting prior to his rap career. Basically, he doesn't fit the rap mold. But I think rap music is at a new place. White guys can rap about materialism and the acceptance of the LGBTQ community. And we're ready for a black guy with a lot of formal education to write nerd rap lyrics and be all feely-introspective on an album. Oh, and the album is really good. Part smart-rap, part Frank Ocean smoothness.

7. The New Pornographers - Brill Bruisers
Another band I've been a half-hearted listener of over the last 7-8 years despite solid releases over a long career. But this album just gets it. Opening title track is probably my favorite opener of the year and the rest of the album follows suit.

6. The War on Drugs - Lost in the Dream
Did anyone even know who this band was prior to this year? Philadelphia based and sounding like Springsteen, these guys created one great blue-collar record. The album grew on me over the year to become one of my favorites. Check them out and then check them out again if you're not immediately pulled in.

5. Spoon - They Want My Soul
Blah blah blah, old-timers who do solid rock music. This album is fresh. Great use of key boards. Great riffs. My only complaint would be that the lyrical content is mostly applicable to people on the road traveling and creating music... not so much asking questions that could be generalized for the common person. That complaint out of the way, this one is great.

4. Beyonce - s/t
Easily the most listened to album of the year, this CD stayed in our car radio from Christmas to March. Beyonce has always been pretty incredible. 4 was full of pop gems (Party, Countdown) and beautiful ballads (1+1) and her previous albums did the same to some extent. But Beyonce's self-titled release took the country by storm. Full of sexy songs (Drunk in Love, Partition), great pop hits (XO), and strong female tracks (Flawless, Pretty Hurts). Incredible live performance with Jay-Z and overall the most deservedly talked-about artists from the year. Here's to Queen Bey.

3. alt-J - This Could All Be Yours
So much anticipation for these guys. While not universally loved by critics and fans, I thought this was a great sophomore release for these young Brit rockers. What set alt-J apart with their first album was a unique sound all their own while sticking to the basic four-piece band setup. New sound but not unrecognizable. I believe This Could All Be Yours moves the band further along, taking risks but not to the point of a complete overhaul. So I'm all about the twang of Left Hand Free, the Miley sample on Hunger of the Pine, and the intricate vocals on Warm Foothills. Keep it up!

2. Ages and Ages - Divisionary
Earlier this year, I saw a list published on Paste Magazine's website citing Divisionary's closing track, Divisionary (Do the Right Thing) as their top song of the year thus far. I checked out the band and instantly fell into their folksy grasp. While not necessarily ground breaking in their sound, they do the folk, choral pop perfectly. They collectively sing about being morally upright without sounding naive. They sing with passion and conviction. They sang songs I felt good about putting on repeat listens.

1. Sylvan Esso - s/t
This beautiful electronic duo is composed of singer Amelia Meath (of Mountain Man) and producer Nick Sanborn (of Megafaun). In trying to describe them to my RA staff, I had a running joke of describing "this band that's a side-project of two bands you've never heard of" followed by the qualifier, "I couldn't sound more pretentious." Thankfully, Sylvan Esso is the exact opposite of pretension. Jorjette and I had a chance to catch them live and their stage presence was that of pure enthusiasm and joy in their art. If you haven't heard much of them, they create some really solid beats with the sweetest (yet strong!) female voice. They play off that paradox well and it results in an album suited for many settings. It's great for the following settings: the morning, grooving in the car, background at a party, foreground at a party, headphones on, and, probably other places as well.

As always, it's been fun making a list. Leave your thoughts if you're into that sort of thing.

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