Wow. What a sucky year in music.
This year I found myself Spotifying the albums in every “best of” list because I couldn’t find the ten I was happy with. You know things are bad when you’re stressing over who gets the last three spots instead of the first three. This might be the worst year in this list’s history, and the first time I’ve put an album in number one I wasn’t completely in love with. Or maybe I’m just getting old.
2014 was the year of the singer songwriter. Half of this list (and four of the top 5) is comprised by old solo favorites, old favorites who went solo, new solo musicians, or, in the case of number 1, a solo musician who’s been around but who I never really gave love to. Maybe it’s why these ten stand out—because of the singular vision they carry. Or maybe it’s because singer/songwriters are an old person thing.
So here’s my 2014 list, also known as the few souls who actually made good music this year.
10.Spoon – They Want My Soul Oh Spoon. Always in my top ten, never really making it to the top top. I was afraid they wouldn’t make this list for a while there, but in the end they edged out Sylvan Esso and Ex Hex to get to number 10 by the skin of their teeth. Many are lauding They Want My Soul as a return to form for Britt Daniels and team, but really—did they ever go out of form? As far as I’m concerned this 8th album is the 8th in a line of great albums by the most consistent rock band this century.
9.+/- – Jumping The Tracks I’ve been thinking a lot about the 2000s indie scene lately; how many of the bands were eclipsed by garage, dancepunk and emo; how so many of them simply dropped out of the conversation. Bands like Masters of The Hemisphere, Mates of State, True Love Always and Aden were legion, and they were amazing. +/- is one of those bands, and their latest album Jumping The Tracks is solid. So how come websites like Pitchfork and Stereogum, who used to champion the band, didn’t even bother giving them a review? Maybe that’s what happens when you disappear for six years, or when you have other things to worry about like career or family. I’m overjoyed that James Baluyut, Patrick Ramos and Chris Deaner decided to pick up their instruments once again despite all that, and am a fan for life.
8.Real Estate- Atlas Real Estate’s 2011 album Days was a complete revelation—a layered, contemplative masterwork; it’s what Adult-Oriented Indie would sound like if such a thing existed. Their follow up album Atlas is more of the same, but in a year like this that’s not such a bad thing. Martin Courtney and Matt Mondanile play some of the most intricately impressive guitarwork in a year where guitars take a back seat, and the song “Crime” is the best they’ve ever written.
7.Beck – Morning Phase I love “Loser” and “Devil’s Haircut” as much as the next guy, but let’s face it: Beck is best when he’s depressed. Morning Phase is a spiritual sequel to Beck’s 2002 masterpiece Sea Change, and while it’s nothing new or groundbreaking, there’s a certain warmth to it. It’s familiar and comfortable, the kind of record you go back to because it fits perfectly with the state you’re in. This is also the album where Beck actually sings, and when the king of the melodic drawl gathers enough courage to belt out “I’m so tired of being alone” at the beginning of “Blue Moon”, the ironic cool of Beck’s 20-year career just dissipates.
6.Phantogram – Voices One of the reasons Phantogram may not get the respect they deserve is that their music isn’t anything new. Take a listen to their 2010 debut Eyelid Movies and you can easily throw them in with secondary 90s trip hop acts like Mono, Ruby and Hooverphonic. Sophomore effort Voices is no take off, but the songs are so good. Take the time to listen to one-two punch singles Black Out Days and Fall In Love, and you can easily imagine this duo joining the ranks of Massive Attack and Portishead. Alas, Trip Hop really isn’t a thing anymore, but with the 90s coming back maybe the genre will get some sort of revival, and expect Phantogram to be at the fore.
5.Kevin Drew – Darlings Back in the noughties Broken Social Scene was the band to watch—a Canadian supergroup that sounded as if they were destined for superstardom. The amount of talent eventually proved to be the downfall of the band, with members like Feist, Emily Haines and Amy Millan taking off on their own respective careers, leaving founder and lead vocalist Kevin Drew a musical orphan. Drew spent the rest of the decade trying to keep BSS’s legacy alive, entitling subsequent solo projects of its different members “Broken Social Scene presents…” and even trying to get the band back together with new female vocalist Lisa Lobsinger. That failed, and Darlings is the sound of Kevin Drew finally letting go. With this album, all the ambition has finally faded away, and what’s left is simple, nuanced songwriting. Drew puts it best in the chorus of Good Sex: “but I’m still breathing with you, baby. Yeah I’m still breathing with you babe.”
4. Mac DeMarco – Salad Days Mac DeMarco is one of those musicians I love to hate: a too-cool-for-school gap-toothed ironic hipster who actually grew up in Canada and moved to Brooklyn. And yet, his album Salad Days is irresistible. Wispy and dreamy, the record is perfect for lazy Sundays reading books by the couch, and DeMarco (not even his real name, tsss) is probably the first guy to get slacker right since Pavement.
3.Run The Jewels – Run The Jewels 2 Back in June I happened onto Run The Jewels’ set at The Honda Stage in Governor’s Ball. I had no idea who this group was but the crowd was supercharged, like they were waiting for someone to poke them so they could tear shit apart. Five months later they release Run The Jewels 2, and the album feels exactly the same. Listen to “Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck “ and you’ll know what I mean. Plus, it’s so great hearing Zack De La Rocha rap again.
2.Damon Albarn – Everyday Robots On the flipside of the aforementioned Kevin Drew you have Damon Albarn, the reluctant genius who hides his singular brilliance behind his many bands (Blur, Gorillaz, The Good The Bad and The Queen) but never seems to allow credit for himself. Finally, for the first time in over two decades, he puts his name to a record. The result is not what you’d expect—Everyday Robots is solemn, quiet, reflective. No trace of masterful pop collages like “Feel Good Inc.” or even dumb fun songs like “Boys and Girls” here, just melancholy and solitude. Albarn said that unlike many of his albums that were put together swiftly, a lot of thought and time was put into Everyday Robots. This is very apparent and very sad, considering the loneliness that fills this record (look at the cover, for God’s sake).
1.St .Vincent – St. Vincent I was never a big fan of St. Vincent. Sure, I’d buy the occasional Polyphonic Spree album and I liked her second solo record, but not enough to go get the other albums, or even her collaboration with David Byrne. This is why no one’s more surprised than me that she’s at the top of this list. Upon first listen, you know that St. Vincent’s self-titled album is important, whether you like what you’re hearing or not. There’s just something about the way she deftly plays the guitar that makes it not sound like a guitar, or how she’s able to sing lyrics like “oh what an ordinary day, take out the garbage, masturbate” or “I prefer your love to Jesus” and make it sound profound. I stand behind my blahness at making St. Vincent number one of 2014, but the genius is undeniable.