Music Times 10 Best Albums of 2014; St. Vincent, The War on Drugs, Jack White & More...Who Takes No. 1?
by Ryan Book, Caitlin Carter, Joseph Degroot, Kyle Dowling, Carolyn Menyes Dec 31, 2014 10:17 AM EST
Glares were exchanged. Words were said that can't be taken back. Punches weren't quite thrown, although two Music Times editors (that won't be named) did engage in a karate chop battle reminiscent of the Clark Griswold vs. Plastic Lawn Reindeer battle of '91. When all was said and done however, the staff had managed to narrow a list of 943 albums down to a mere 10. Old standards like Jack White and Beck proved that their status within the music community was intact, and newer, much buzzed about acts including Sturgill Simpson proved themselves worthy of consideration during the previous 12 months.
Check out the Top 10 established by our own Ryan Book, Caitlin Carter, Joseph Degroot, Kyle Dowling and Carolyn Menyes. Feel free to weigh in with your own choices as in the comments section…but please be kind. This quintet used enough bad language during the last few weeks of voting.
10) Lese Majesty by Shabazz Cathedrals
Few acts have generated the same level of wave for readers of both Pitchfork and Rolling Stone alike as Death Grips, an act featuring cryptic lyrics and a violent performance style from both rapper Stefan Burnett and drummer/programmer Zach Hill. That bombast made the act pure gold for otherwise fans of hardcore and noise rock…while driving a wedge between themselves and other alt-rock kids looking for something new boiling in hip-hop. Enter Shabazz Palaces, one of the few hip-hop acts signed to iconic Seattle indie Sub Pop. Where Burnett might attack audiences with his words, emcee Ishmael "Butterfly" Butler takes a more chillwave approach, encouraging the listener to get lost in the mysteries of his lyrics, rather than fear what might be coming during the next bar. The only thing requiring fans to stay on their toes is what format the next song appear in: Butler and fellow Palace resident Tendai Maraire bounce between the traditional verse-hook setup on one song and into a hypnotic drone on the next, all backed by a interplanetary caravan of psychedelic beats. (Ryan Book)
09) The Voyager by Jenny Lewis
There’s something about being vulnerable and open and heartbroken, not having it all figured out yet, and setting it to a poppy, indie rock melody. And that is what former Rilo Kiley frontwoman Jenny Lewis did on her latest solo effort, the glowing The Voyager. Pulling from being 38 and still not having your life totally in order, Lewis explored again (“Head Underwater”), attempting and failing to be carefree (“Just One of the Guys”), marriage (“Love U Forever”) and betrayal (“She’s Not Me”). She takes on all these heavy and universal themes with heavy guitar work, all with light backing instrumentation and sunny vocals. It’s a dichotomy that hits a listener hard when you realize just how personal Lewis is getting, and it’s a true step forward in her discography and one of her best offerings to date. (Carolyn Menyes)
08) Everyday Robots by Damon Albarn
Damon Albarn has been making music for 25 years, most notably with Blur and Gorillaz, but Everyday Robots is his first proper solo release, and boy does it feel solitary. Don’t worry: It isn’t completely melancholy. There are uplifting moments on the album as well. The effort as a whole is akin to a journal. Some scribblings are observations (such as his critique of technology in the opener "Everyday Robots"), some are autobiographical (such as "You & Me") and others tell tales of his worldly encounters ("Mr. Tembo"). The result is a very personal, intimate and fluid album that is sonically diverse—not necessarily in tone but in detail. Albarn also enlisted Bat For Lashes/Natasha Khan and Brian Eno, who are welcome additions on any record.This is an album I keep coming back to even eight months later and Albarn's live versions are just as spectacular. Everyday Robots should be included in any list of his best work is one of the standout efforts of 2014. (Caitlin Carter)
07) Salad Days by Mac DeMarco
Mac DeMarco is known for being a gap-tooth prankster who walks the line between being playful and reckless. Salad Days plays off that slacker vibe but feels more refined and purposeful. With his second full-length, DeMarco enriches the sounds of his previous efforts but doesn't depart from his brand of wonky, guitar-driven dream-pop. However, there is a more mature sensibility to the record with his lyrics balancing between wise and wiseass this time around. He’s also managed to master that grungy, ‘90s don’t-give-a-f**k vibe, which has earned him quite a live following. Simply put, Salad Days wonderfully weird album. (CC)
06) Metamodern Sounds in Country Music by Sturgill Simpson
In the middle of a big ol’ bro country movement in his genre, Sturgill Simpson emerged from Kentucky during 2014 to bring the music back to its roots. The resulting album, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music is trippy, twangy, thoughtful and everything that country needs right now to counteract the likes of Florida Georgia Line. Name-checking Stephen Hawking, LSD and “turtles,” Simpson’s lyricism is introspective, bringing in much-needed folk elements into his classic, rich country instrumentation. Don’t look for more than an acoustic guitar here because you won’t find it. In addition to exploring hallucinogens and space, Simpson makes things work that just shouldn’t, including his folk take on the ‘80s hit “The Promise” (which made Music Times’ top songs list). Each song is perfectly crafted and thoughtfully made, making this the album that country so desperately needs as we move into the second half of the 2010s. (CM)
05) Benji by Sun Kil Moon
If Benji happens to be your first encounter with the music of Mark Kozelek, then it can be quite an overwhelming experience. Acoustic singer-songwriters are famously confessional and soul-baring, but few artists have ever dared to be as relentlessly autobiographical and blunt as Kozelek is across Benji’s 11 songs. Though a wide range of topics are discussed, ranging from humorous to horrific, trangressive to mundane, Benji is above all an album about mortality and the ways it manifests itself in our everyday lives. During “Ben’s My Friend,” Kozelek sings about something as innocuous as being the weird old guy at a Postal Service concert, but other tracks tackle mortality in its more tragic forms, such as “Carissa,” about Kozelek’s cousin who burned to death in a freak accident, or “Pray For Newtown,” about his reaction to the Newtown massacre. No other album this year, or perhaps even this entire decade, was more emotionally devastating than Sun Kil Moon’s Benji. (Joseph Degroot)
04) Lazaretto by Jack White
As Jack White’s second studio album, Lazaretto proves that the former White Stripes guitarist is constantly looking to spread his sound while still somehow keeping it very “Jack White.” Whether we look at the blazing guitar riffs on the album’s title track, or perhaps the charm of “Alone in My Home,” each song on the record sits as a unique piece of art that can very well stand alone. Put them together, however, and what you have is one of the best albums delivered during 2014. Whether or not you’re a fan of White’s raw musical style, it’s hard to look over the fact that Lazaretto is a captivating piece of music. Hard rock riffs match swimmingly with emotional lyrics on various tracks on the album. Because of that, and so much more, the record left not only me, but also White-lovers around the globe excited for whatever he decides to put together next. (Kyle Dowling)
03) Lost In The Dream by The War on Drugs
The warehouse-sized sound of Arcade Fire. The beleaguered love of life in the middle class, a la Bruce Springsteen. The tight, controlling grip of frontman and guitarist Adam Granduciel, reminiscent of Billy Corgan on the Smashing Pumpkins 20 years ago. An appropriation of Bob Dylan in songwriting (somewhat) and vocal style (more obviously). All of these descriptions and comparisons were offered to your correspondent when he discussed The War on Drugs' Lost In The Dream with fellow music lovers. Indeed, little of what Granduciel and company did during this album was groundbreaking. Yet like Dire Straits and Pearl Jam before it, the band demonstrated that the sounds some might (and have) dismissively degrade as "beer rock" can actually surpass the more exotic music aimed by high-minded acts toward critics instead of their fans. The War on Drugs—from the jam band theatrics of "Red Eyes" to the more plaintive "Eyes To The Wind" and the epic ode "An Ocean Between The Waves"—may have made a "dad rock" album with Lost In The Dream. But it's "dad rock" that father and son can embrace together. (RB)
02) Morning Phase by Beck
Recording a companion piece to an album 12 years after the fact just shouldn’t work, but it’s what Beck attempted to do with his 2014 effort Morning Phase. Using many of the same musicians as his 2002 album Sea Change, Beck once again explored heartbreaking music, this time sans the heartbreak of a relationship. Instead, Beck takes on the heartbreak of a world that just isn’t spinning right anymore. The dreamy, atmospheric musicianship of this album blends in perfectly with Beck’s voice. Album opener “Morning” sets the stage, both lyrically and musically, for the rest of the record. Vaguely melancholy lyrics, such as “woke up this morning, found a love light in the storm / Looked up this morning, saw the roses full of thorns / Guns are falling, they don’t have nowhere to go” can resonate with any sort of sad feeling. Other album highlights include the rich lead single “Blue Moon,” the dreamy “Say Goodbye” and album closer “Waking Light.” (CM)
01) St. Vincent by St. Vincent
While she’s been around for some time, St. Vincent (aka Annie Clark) truly spread her wings with her 2014 self-titled album. Taking the art rock genre by storm, this record leaves listeners with an interesting collection of feelings, from wonderstruck confusion to utter joy. And should the album itself not be enough, Clark’s deliveries of each and every track — which have taken a true robotic nature — are nothing short of stunning. “Birth In Reverse,” “Digital Witness,” “Severed Crossed Fingers” — take your pick. It’s a rarity to find a record, especially one as experimental as this, that lends itself to an easy listen all the way through. Regardless, Clark is somehow able to do so seamlessly on this record. Adding to that, watching her promote the album and amaze Late Show host David Letterman or rock Saturday Night Live’s legendary Studio 8H, was remarkable. In the end, St. Vincent’s latest piece of art is just that — true, honest and well-placed art. (KD)