Sunday, January 4, 2015

Year End Music Roundup - Best of 2014

Now that it's January, and now that I've spent the past week listening exclusively to my top 75 or so albums of the year, it's finally time to put together my list of best releases for the last calendar year. Looking back, it was, as it is every year, a great year for music. Anybody who says that music was better in the past simply isn't listening to the right music. I honestly believe that what they really mean is to say is that they enjoyed music more in the past. The reason so many people still claim the albums of their youth to be their favorite, myself included, is because of how passionate you felt about it. But you should never confuse that with the quality of music that comes out today. I truly love every album that I'm putting on here. More so than in years past, there truly wasn't any clear cut favorite record. All the top ten or so were pretty even in my praise. And then the next 20 or so were all very close in my level of enjoyment. So pay very little attention to the numbers, and as always, enjoy. 

1. Lana Del Rey - Ultraviolence: Lana's follow-up to her stunning 2012 Born to Die album. This album is stunning in so many ways. There's a tragic beauty to every song, reminiscent of "Dark Paradise."

2. Antemasque - Antemasque: Omar Rodriguez Lopez and Cedric Bixler-Zavala re-joined forces to form this new band, but instead of picking up where Mars Volta left off, this feels more like the long-awaited follow-up to their previous band At The Drive-In's 2000 masterpiece "Relationship of Command". These ten songs have more in common with that post-hardcore energy than with Mars Volta's prog-rock. The results are pretty spectacular.

3. Beck - Morning Phase: Though I haven't always liked everything he's done, I've always admired Beck's willingness to take chances and try something new. This is a haunting and quiet album that manages to sound fresh even though many others have made music like this over the past few years.

4. o'death - Out of Hands We Go: Since their debut, the Brooklyn band's unique sound catapulted them into my favorite bands, and with each new album they deliver a masterpiece of spiritual death folk. Their last album felt like a redemption from the violence of the preceding album. If that holds, then this album feels like the wandering through the underworld of forlorn soul. Stunning, epic, and undeniably brilliant. 

5. The Icarus Line - Avowed Slavery: My favorite L.A. noise rock band's "mini-album" which they declared to be a companion to last year's phenomenal "Slave Vows" record. These five songs, most longer than 6 minutes, were apparently recorded at the same time as the record and it shows. They have the same dark energy that made that record one of my favorites of last year.

6. Damon Albarn - Everyday Robots: The first proper solo album from the legendary Blur, Gorillaz, and The Good, The Bad, and The Queen frontman. The songs on here represent the softer, more personal side that he's always shown here and there in his other bands. There isn't a single bad song on here, once again proving that Damon is one of the best songwriters of his generation.

7. Sopor Aeternus & The Ensemble of Shadows - Mitternacht: Perhaps the most curious album on the list comes from this German darkwave band. Though they've been around for 20 years, I hadn't heard them before this year. Musically, the album carries the same feel. Classical and Neofolk elements combine to create songs that would feel right at home in Neil Gaiman novel. It's rare these days to find something that sounds truly unique and equally wonderful, this is one of those albums.

8. Odawas - Reflections of a Pink Laser: This is one of those under the radar bands that is mesmerizing in a sort of post Syd Barrett, still finding their sound, Pink Floyd kind of way. Their work reminds me of albums like Meddle and UmmaGumma. The most exciting thing about it is how much growth it shows from their previous records. Their sound has expanded into truly epic visions.

9. Natural Snow Buildings - The Night Country: This is the French drone folk band's most focused album in quite some time, and features the welcomed return of vocals to some of the songs, including the epic "Rusty Knives Valley." From the song titles, the theme of this album seems to be the horror of a abandoned countryside and all the terrors, both real and imagined that come to visit. "Sandman Traps" is another stellar achievement, and perhaps one of their best songs ever. This is their most accessible album since Sunlit Stone.
10. Ty Segall - Manipulator: Picking up where the last two records left off, there is a spiritual beauty to chaos that shrouds this album. This is the sound of a songwriter hitting his creative peek and exploring whatever direction his muse decides to take him.
11. Sivert Hoyem - Endless Love: On his fifth solo album, the Norwegian singer songwriter seems to have recaptured the demon that gave Madrugada their unique edge. His last album, 2011's Long Slow Distance was a brilliant moody album with spiritual undertones, but on this record, he returns to the bleary eyed indie rock of Madrugada's crowning achievement, 2001's The Nightly Disease.

12. Big Blood - Fight For Your Dinner Vol. 1 & Unlikely Mothers: The Portland Maine band's unique blend of psychedelic folk has propelled them near the top of my list of best bands currently around. Their 18th and 19th albums are two more outstanding achievements, sounding like an artifact from an alternate reality where phonographs and traveling oddity shows still reign supreme.

13. Sun Kil Moon - Benji: All year long, this album stayed with me and was one of the most frequently listened to. It's a sad album, looking back at so many who died as Mark Kozeleck revisits moments in his life. A profound portrait of life in America. 

14. Warpaint - Warpaint: An L.A. based dream pop band, this is Warpaint's second record. It's ethereal sound, with psychedelic undertones, works beautifully with the vocals to give the entire thing the feeling of listening to a dream.

15. Secret Colours - Positive Distractions: Great hooks and catchy rhythms commingle with dreamier moments, creating a spectacle of enjoyment. First released in two parts and later it was released as one album, but I like to view it as two, with the Part I being a little more psychedelic garage and Part II a bit more polished psychedelic pop.

16. King Buzzo - This Machine Kills Artists: This album is a pioneering attempt at folk punk with atonal acoustic guitar blended with King Buzzo's familiar growl. It's rare anymore that I hear something that feels new, but this is one of those records. Much like the death folk wave of several years ago, this album touches a nerve that hadn't yet been exposed.

17. Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra - Fuck Off Get Free We Pour Light On Everything: The seventh album from the Montreal post rock band is the first 2014 release that I listened to. It has the grand scope I've come to expect from them and reminds me of the more introspective parts of Arcade Fire's The Suburbs. This album is a journey that one must commit to in order to appreciate.

18. Robert Ellis - The Lights from the Chemical Plant: His sound has a country folk feel with a nod to 70's rock, and his songs are straight forward and very well done. These are traditional country tales of lonely life that have a musically modern feel, somewhat like My Morning Jacket though less grandiosity.

19. The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger - Midnight Sun: The second album from Sean Lennon and Charlotte Kemp Muhl's evolving band abandons the neo-folk acoustic style of their debut in favor of a psychedelic rock vibe.

20. Death From Above 1979 - The Physical World: Perhaps the most anticipated release of the year for me, actually I've been anticipating ever since the reformed two years ago, this album has not disappointed. Consisting only of guitar and drums (just as The White Stripes and Black Keys) the band manages to squeeze an incredibly full sound out of the instruments, and actually go much heavier than the other mentioned bands. They take their influence from punk rather than blues, and it shows.

21. J Mascis - Tied to a Star: Another beautiful acoustic singer songwriter piece that feels like a trip into a nice hazy world. In some ways it feels like a mellower version of Kurt Vile's "Walkin' a Pretty Daze" but perhaps that's only because Mascis is an obvious influence on him. This is one of those perfect Sunday records to listen to while lazing around and letting your mind drift toward internal stories.

22. Marilyn Manson - The Pale Emperor: Reinventing himself into a demonic version of Bowie's Thin White Duke, The Mephistopheles Of Los Angeles delivers the most complete music of his career. This is one of his most dynamic albums, reminding me of Mechanical Animals, with softer and heavier elements and super accessible while keeping the edge he's always had.

23. Tweedy - Sukierae: Over the years, Jeff Tweedy's been one of most prolific and exceptional songwriters, both with Wilco and Uncle Tupelo, and he continues his incredible run with this fantastic album. Combining blues, indie rock, and alternative country, the songs are familiar and dynamic, but with a deeply personal touch that causes them to shine. 

24. Stardeath and White Dwarfs - Wastoid: Five years after their amazing debut "The Birth", the psychedelic rock band finally returned with a follow-up. The band is related, both literally and artistically, to The Flaming Lips and they definitely seem to be following the same path as The Lips have over their past few albums. What I love about this album is how expansive it is, taking influence from metal, psych rock, and indie rock and blending it together into something that sounds new and powerful.

25. Electric Wizard - Time to Die: Shrouded in fuzzy guitar and satanic drumming, this blissful noise washes over you like a storm cloud. This record definitely delves deeper into the heavy psych sphere of their last release, the Legalise Drugs & Murder EP. I like this course for them, it allows them to branch away from pure stoner metal riffs and explore a general sense of creepiness, of which these songs are full of.

26. Noah Gundersen - Ledges: A debut folk album with a country twinge that sounds like an album Ryan Adams would make if he made a scaled back acoustic album. There is also a sadness to it that reminds me of Jason Molina's work. 
27. First Aid Kit - Stay Gold: Picking up where 2012's The Lion's Roar left off, this album sees the band morph even further in their incorporation of Midwestern country folk. This album is almost certain to continue their climb into being recognized as one of the best acts around today.
28. The Growlers - Chinese Fountain: The Long Beach psychedelic garage band has an effortlessly feel to their music, yet it never sounds dull or lazy. There's definitely laid back Cali vibe that works great, completely unpretentious, much like a West Coast version of Kurt Vile.

29. Thurston Moore - The Best Day: The Sonic Youth frontman's album opens with two lengthy songs which are among his best solo efforts since 1995's Psychic ♥♥♥'s. He's always been able to find the space that exists within a song, stretch it out, and reveal hidden moments that you never knew existed. As much as I love these noodling, drone type creations of his, I also love the short quick rock songs and this album has a good number of those, the title track being among the best. A really great album, refreshing and familiar at the same time.  
30. The Vines - Wicked Nature: This album goes back to their roots, opting for a more direct garage rock feel on the almost universally short tracks. It's no wonder the band started as a Nirvana cover band, the influence is still clear, but unlike other bands, they are inspired by Kurt's sound rather than attempting to ape it. Super catchy guitar hooks, rumbling drums, and Craig's howl make this album one that will most likely go down as the band's landmark release.

Honorable Mentions: Here's some other albums that came close to making the list, and as I said, on other days may have made it.

Astronauts - Hollow Ponds
Cold War Kids - Hold My Home
The Coral - The Curse of Love
John Frusciante - Enclosure
Mark Fry - South Wind, Clear Sky
Goat - Commune
Goblin Hovel - Wonders Gone Dark, Shadows Brought to Life
Ed Harcourt - Time of Dust
Joker's Daughter and the Bullfrogs -Hybrid
Jessica Lea Mayfield - Make My Head Sing...
Moonface - City Wrecker
Karen O - Crush Songs
Rural Alberta Advantage - Mended with Gold
Sinoia Caves - Beyond the Black Rainbow
The Skygreen Leopards - Family Crimes
Sleepy Sun - Maui Tears
Spoon - They Want My Soul
Sonne Hagal - Ockerwasser
Those Poor Bastards - Vicious Losers
Temples - Sun Structures
Tricky - Adrian Thaws
Sharon Van Etten - Are We There
Mirel Wagner - When the Cellar Children See the Light of Day
Gerard Way - Hesitant Alien
Woods - With Light and With Love

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