Every year has its share of tragedies and darkness, but 2014 has felt particularly tough. On global, national, and community levels, death, devastation, and darkness have plagued the nightly news in a particularly frustrating and seemingly senseless way. Perhaps that feeling is amplified by the omnipresence of technology that has made each and every pain felt by a larger audience and then replayed on an endless loop. It could also be that this has been an especially broken year, a theory supported by the fact that so many of 2014’s best albums are fueled by artists facing harrowing struggles.
The year in music took on issues both massive and personal, whether it’s hip-hop tackling the dangers of gangs and drugs, punk singers fighting against forced identities, or singer-songwriters dealing with the strife of heartbreak and death. Even the big pop songwriters were on that same page; T-Swift’s “Shake It Off” is one way of facing adversity, I suppose. Some tried to power through by holding a mirror up to the minutiae, others tried to find a new path, and each approach showed its strengths.
If you’re going through your own trauma, something on this list should help. In fact, many of the albums come from typically underrepresented voices, lending a particularly inclusive and dynamic feel to the redemptive efforts. So, as we wrap up the music portion of our Annual Report (with the film coverage coming at you next week), we look to offer a helping hand in picking through the thousands of albums released this year, leading you to the powerful, triumphant essentials. Despite the never-ending bad news, these albums will give us a powerful way to remember a rough year and offer some sense of hope for the future.
50. Merchandise – After the End
On their first two albums, Merchandise occupied the nebulous area between shoegaze and post-punk. With their latest album, August’s After the End, the Florida outfit announced they were effectively “starting over,” remaking themselves as “a pop band, but it’ll still be a twisted reality.” It’s hard to argue with the results: lots of brooding ballads spun with equal parts morose theatricality, endlessly killer hooks, and angst-ridden ambiance. It helps that Merchandise‘s idea of “pop” doesn’t simply involve gold records or endorsement deals; in a series of interviews and profile pieces, the band made it clear that they’re more interested in the inherent accessibility and vulnerability of the genre, albeit made more intense and visceral. More than just finally establishing the band’s distinct identity, After the End demonstrates that Merchandise are worth getting to know most intimately. –Chris Coplan
49. Warpaint – Warpaint
Warpaint’s self-titled LP begins with an error and an apology in “Intro”. It’s an unintentional nod to the rollout of musical femme fatales that follows suit in a year of female dominance and reinvention, where gender and its stereotypes were stripped from the usual winning formula. Warpaint‘s muted, minimalist release kick-started it all with a powerful rebuttal that refused to be ignored. It creeps with a brooding sense of revenge. The foursome ditch traditional songwriting on Warpaint in the first nothing-but-net goal of 2014 that should still stir up that same unequivocal excitement in the years to follow. –Nina Corcoran
48. Andy Stott – Faith in Strangers
Andy Stott’s dark, ethereal sound has evolved significantly since his earlier EPs and 2012’s Luxury Problems, a record of windy, otherworldly aesthetic under the influence of deep, deep house. Stott’s “former piano teacher,” Alison Skidmore, provided vocals on that release, notably the repeatedly cooed “touch” on the album’s standout “Numb”. With Faith in Strangers, Stott asks the listener to reconsider faith as a concept; he brings back Skidmore to speak eerie phrases “inside” and “wrap your hands” on the industrial, pinnacling “Violence”. Most tracks here zigzag toward some hot moment, but this strategy results in a dance floor that is much more excavated and jagged than that of yesteryear. The album’s distinguished sounds highlight Stott’s transformation from a dabbler in electronic gloom to an explorer of patterns and ambience as he strengthens the blissfully apocalyptic sound he’s been perfecting since those early releases. –Zander Porter
47. Lower – Seek Warmer Climes
Nervous emotions permeate Seek Warmer Climes, the debut album from Copenhagen outfit Lower. While it arguably occupies a similarly icy and distant territory to that claimed by countrymen Iceage, the album has an immediacy that belies its influences and a complexity that distinguishes itself from the ever-evolving pack of dark and jangly offerings. Out of the cacophonous onslaught of clanging guitars and unrelenting drums comes an at times unhinged performance from lead singer Adrian Toubro. On top of the howls and yelps on songs like “Another Life” and “Bastard Tactics”, he also reveals some biting sarcasm on the disquieting “Lost Weight, Perfect Skin”. Here, he takes down superficiality and pain by singing, “Lost weight, perfect skin/ Will bring the torment to an end/ Put the smile back on my lips.” While lots of acts have been declared the torchbearers of post-punk revival, Lower manage to transcend the pack by being even more uncompromising, more skeletal, and more visceral. –Josh Terry
46. Big K.R.I.T. – Cadillactica
Critics had counted Big K.R.I.T. out after his debut album. Instead of canonizing him as the South’s next big star, people started wondering if he’d peaked during his excellent run of mixtapes before the tepid Live from the Underground. K.R.I.T.’s answer? Not quite. Cadillactica isn’t just a personal triumph, it’s also one of the most fully realized rap albums of the year. Chalk it up to a renewed sense of direction. Big K.R.I.T. mixes his country roots with Afrofuturistic vision to give himself a space to work on his mainstream ambitions with traditionalism. Bedroom burners like “Pay Attention” and triumphant trunk-rattlers like “King of the South” fit perfectly under this atmosphere. Like his forefathers before him, Big K.R.I.T. again proves the South has something to say. –Brian Josephs
45. Alex G – DSU
Alex Giannascoli, a North Philadelphia native and Temple University student, makes low-key but lovely bedroom pop under a shorter version of his name. Quietly prolific, Giannascoli has seamlessly blended the gentle and the off-kilter through releases like 2012’s TRICK and RULES. Now, with DSU, his first ever mastered full-length (and Orchid Tapes debut), he refines his formula while maintaining his charm. The album’s best songs, like “Boy”, “Sorry”, and “After Ur Gone”, feature a simple combination of muted acoustic guitars, droning but heartfelt vocals, bass, a steady drum pattern, and the occasional piano. Even with his rudimentary pieces, Alex G is a deft songwriter, able to pack tons of sugary hooks, emotional resonance, and smart flourishes into such simple compositions. –Josh Terry
44. The Preatures – Blue Planet Eyes
Rock ‘n’ roll this sticky shouldn’t sound so fat-free. Yet that’s the trademark of Australia’s own The Preatures. Produced by Spoon’s Jim Eno, their long-awaited debut, Blue Planet Eyes, bakes a three-layer alt pop cake of melodies, hooks, and harmony. Singer Isabella Manfredi is straight-up addicting, her vocals leading each track with curious nuances and absolute spunk. She can be playful (“Somebody’s Talking”), resourceful (“Is This How You Feel?”), preachy (“Ordinary”), moody (“Rock and Roll Rave”), and funky (“Cruel”). Such character washes over her peers, specifically Jack Moffit’s friendly guitar hooks and Gideon Bensen’s aching harmonies. It’s also a varied record, which is quite reflective of a band that’s been around — and they have (since 2010) — and one that’ll stay around. Eno does suppress some of their sweaty onstage charisma, but hey, all the more reason to catch them live. And you will. –Michael Roffman
43. Ryan Adams – Ryan Adams
Before Ryan Adams got sober, married pop princess Mandy Moore, and built a room of his own (Pax-Am studio in Los Angeles), the singer-songwriter lived fast and ferociously. A well-documented train wreck, nothing he released between 2002 and 2011 — at his trademark breakneck speed — could be described as focused or mature, yet those characterizations surface in nearly every comment on his self-titled 14th solo release. In an interview with BuzzFeed, Adams admits he even finds the transformation a pleasurable one. “I can listen to this record front to back, every track,” he said. “I can’t say that about a lot of my other records. There’s a joviality and a weirdness there.” Now that this punk rock Peter Pan (who successfully moonlighted as an alt country crooner) has officially grown up and exorcised his demons without neutering his agile observations, he’s free to dish out more helpings of smooth, Tom Petty-ready snarl. –Janine Schaults
42. Kool A.D. – Word O.K.
The term “Bay Area weirdo” is applicable to a number of West Coast rappers, but aside from Lil B there isn’t anyone it fits better than Kool A.D. His prolific post-Das Racist solo career continues to show remarkable promise and yield extraordinary results, and his most recent album is his strongest work to date, continuing his nonsensical re-purposing of old lyrics and experimenting with thoroughly Bay Area-tinged production. The rap game equivalent of a free-form jazz musician, Victor Vazquez maintains his aesthetic-heavy personality, but often seems to feel disenfranchised from the genre one minute and the supreme ruler of it the next. He’ll soon need to decide exactly how seriously he wants to take rap. He’s such a talented rapper; here’s hoping he decides to flourish and not vanish. –Pat Levy
41. Ought – More Than Any Other Day
The key lyric on Ought’s debut album isn’t from its official rallying track (“Today More Than Any Other Day”) or its best song (“Habit”), but the very beginning of its closing track, “Gemini”: “I retain the right to be disgusted by life/ I retain the right to be in love with everything in sight.” Tim Beeler sings the line through gritted teeth, snapping his syllables like a threatened dog. Throughout More Than Any Other Day, he barks, yelps, and speaks however he needs to to further the “we’re all in this together” spirit summarized by its cover photograph (a photo that Beeler actually found in a dumpster). From Ought’s point of view, there’s no such thing as a bad time to stop where you are and let yourself be amazed by something — even when grocery shopping. Especially when grocery shopping. –Steven Arroyo
40. Cameron Esposito – Same Sex Symbol
In our comedy roundtable earlier this year, we spent a good amount of time arguing about, looking into, and insisting upon diversity in the voices given attention in the scene. With the sublime Same Sex Symbol, our Comedian of the Year, Cameron Esposito, makes all of that seem unnecessary, as her boundless joy and razor wit make any obstacles and boundaries seem trivial. Whether she’s comparing herself to a Thundercat, identifying her gender as “fighter pilot,” or geeking out about Christina Hendricks, Esposito‘s huge, genuine smile is felt on every single line. Same Sex Symbol opens the door to topics not covered by other comedians and doesn’t shut the door on anybody in the process. –Adam Kivel
39. Modern Baseball – You’re Gonna Miss It All
Modern Baseball is a rocket back to my high school days of listening to The Get Up Kids and The Promise Ring. At the time, though, I didn’t want people to hear just how sad-sappy-sack the music and lyrics were. Modern Baseball’s You’re Gonna Miss It All is the kind of album I actually wanted at that time. The lyrics tell hilariously awkward tales of dealing with whatever the fuck life in your late teens and early twenties is, and the music takes on the catchiness from those early bands, but without every awkward blemish Photoshopped away. The Philadelphia rockers have the realism and wordplay I wanted, using the words I was too ashamed to write. It’s a damn near perfect combination. –Nick Freed
38. SBTRKT – Wonder Where We Land
On his 2011 self-titled debut, Aaron Jerome worked hard to introduce the sound behind his notable, vowel-less nametag, SBTRKT. Three years later, he’s less focused on a mystical introduction and more zoned in on honing his capabilities. The guest vocals on Wonder Where We Land push Jerome to strengthen his low-key allure and mismatched hip-hop beats. Still, he knows when to let artists shine, with Caroline Polachek, Raury, and Sampha mouthing one-liners like they’re breaking all the rules. Jerome doesn’t let them steal the spotlight, though. This is the decisive move many were pining for, validating SBTRKT as a breakthrough artist who exceeds his initial timestamp. –Nina Corcoran
37. PUP – PUP
PUP’s self-titled album is a roller coaster on rickety wood slats: turbulent, unpredictable, and always on the verge of flying off the tracks. Songs like “Mabu”, “Back Against the Wall”, and “Factories” sound like the sparks trailing a runaway railcar, with tandem axes trading razor-sharp riffs that oscillate between cacophonous and crisp. PUP describe their music as dirty, and though that is emphatically true, it still undercuts the heavenly catharsis of their four-part gang harmonies, which deftly bridge the gap between their punk leanings and pop sensibilities. Opener “Guilt Trip” is the perfect intro, its escalating, off-kilter riffs clawing through the placenta of some primordial ooze. It feels like a birth, and considering PUP came forth from the ashes of Topanga, the band members’ previous outfit, it sort of is one. Expect big things. –Randall Colburn
36. YG – My Krazy Life
This was the year for DJ Mustard. Even that one mega-popular Iggy Azalea song was a ripoff of his signature staccato synth riffs. You couldn’t go anywhere without hearing his signature drop. His crown jewel also happened to be his grand reintroduction, the debut album of frequent collaborator YG, My Krazy Life, a cohesive, expertly sequenced journey through West Coast gang life. Few albums were a more seamless listen top-to-bottom. YG is a boisterous personality with a voice to match, and he fills the pockets in Mustard’s minimalist beats with detailed street tales that range from humorous to haunting. –Sheldon Pearce
35. Arca – Xen
Since finding his way aboard the legendary team behind Yeezus, the Venezuelan-born Alejandro Ghersi (currently working as Arca) has joined the upper echelon of club-turned-pop collaborators. However, while many of his young electronic contemporaries are busy assisting marketing campaigns for their next genre-du-jour single, Ghersi has remained truthful to his poetic, experimental beats. For the UK transplant, the 15-track Xen is more than a confident debut; it’s the public reveal of a gender-neutral personality named Xen that the openly gay beatsmith had previously reserved for his closest friends. Without uttering a single intelligible syllable, Ghersi guides this turbulent tale of acceptance. Xen‘s individual components are a challenge for anyone just entering the realm of noise, but Ghersi borrows motifs from the likes of Amon Tobin and Aphex Twin to establish a true sense of character for the project. When so many other young phenoms are reacting to the electronic climate around them, Ghersi is producing from the soul and redefining the boundaries between pop and noise. –Derek Staples
34. The Men – Tomorrow’s Hits
Post-hardcore Brooklynites The Men have followed a curious evolution in their prolific career. Once driven by caustic sludgefests that dripped with post-punk regression, the group changed paths and began tailoring their sound around the bombast of classic rock. This is where The Men greet us with Tomorrow’s Hits: a highly stylized, contemporary opus that pays homage to retro analogues. The campy flair infusing “Another Night” and the heartland blues riffs in “Pearly Gates” position The Men to bask in glam rock revivalism. “Different Days” harnesses the crux of this velocity, erupting in a frenzied buildup of gritty garage rock. As the title implies, Tomorrow’s Hits showcases a confluence of tightly produced rock reinventions that lend ample possibilities to The Men’s trajectory. –Christina Salgado
Danish star MØ, aka Karen Marie Ørsted, has raked in an avalanche of awards and superlatives this year, including a CoSign back in February — and she’s earned every one. MØ is original and highly energetic, using her uncanny musical abilities to translate youthful doldrums and emotional dizziness into some of the danciest sounds of 2014. When No Mythologies to Follow first dropped, many reflexively compared the young singer-songwriter to electropop contemporaries like Grimes. But as the album blossomed, folks realized tracks like “Maiden”, “Don’t Wanna Dance”, and the Diplo-produced “XXX 88” melded a novel Scandinavian style with vocals that are just as comfortable hitting classical modes as they are deconstructing Spice Girls hits from yesteryear. No Mythologies runs the gamut from dreary to inspirational, and it’s guaranteed to keep your body and heart moving. –Dan Pfleegor
32. Future Islands – Singles
Praising the future of Future Islands was probably the most effortless thing I did all year; not only did Singles showcase the synthpop band as a new, singular voice shading another side of indie rock, but contrary to what its title suggests, this fourth album feels as collectively soulful and deep as any indie record made this year. Future Islands plugged into the ley lines of pop, cramming synth sounds into a fleet of freewheeling anthems, driving beats, and heart-wrenching new wave. In other words, Singles sounds like the future: overzealous, immediate, and perhaps a little anxious. Here are three musicians with the goal of sounding like nothing else around by tapping into their emotional vulnerability, despair, and courage. In 2014, that’s relevant.
For 11 years, Future Islands were left to build their own musical universe unfettered, but this year was their lightning in a bottle. It never got more potent than the moment they performed “Seasons (Waiting on You)” on Letterman. Beaming in from a hyper-world a few thousand galaxies away, Future Islands scripted an unparalleled feel-good moment — the arrival-in-the-airport scene of their musical history. “We’ve always been more about moving people physically,” frontman Samuel T. Herring told me earlier this year, “but we realized we’re at our best when we move people emotionally too.” He’s a shock-reaction singer, to be sure, but he shocked in the service of a greater sense of feeling. Praising slow-and-steady bloomers like Future Islands is certainly one way to look forward to the future. –Lior Phillips
31. Flying Lotus – You’re Dead!
Throughout his career, Flying Lotus (aka Steve Ellison) has consistently been on the cutting edge of electronic music production. His fifth album, You’re Dead!, is just another testament to his talent. Except instead of dropping another set of future beats, Ellison embraced his inner Miles Davis to give his own interpretation of a jazz album. He brings onboard an impressive roster as well: Herbie Hancock, Kendrick Lamar, Snoop Dogg, Thundercat, and numerous others. You’re Dead! shows that Ellison isn’t content staying within genre confines, but would rather break new ground. A concept album about death that at times feels joyous and inviting does just that. –Dusty Henry
30. Aphex Twin – Syro
Aphex Twin making accessible music? Nah. He’s always been good, but to him, accessible means a three-parter featuring wobbly, glitchy vocals, drums rolling at a well-above average BPM, and a coda composed of pure distortion and static (that’s “Windowlicker”). But if you’re dying to turn someone on to Aphex Twin, be thankful that Syro exists — not only as an entry point, but also arguably as his best album after a long hiatus. The song titles are as challenging as it gets, as Mr. Richard D. James mixes digital discourse with melody. “minipops 67[120.2] (source field mix)” pushes into a cosmos where stuttering percussion and whizzing doo-dads somehow comfort. Then there’s the funky “CIRCLONT14 [152.97]” (shrymoming mix)”, which sounds like Cosmogramma-era Flying Lotus pushed into total abstraction. And there’s some jazz, too?! Do go on, Mr. James. –Brian Josephs
Only a minute into Badillac’s opening track, “Alive”, it becomes apparent that together PANGEA aren’t just a bunch of snot-nosed California punks making another snide garage rock record. Metal guitar and trampling drums beat towards a chorus of bopping garage chords and surf-ready backup vocals. Every track clues you into a different influence, as if they were The Men raised on Ty Segall and Wavves. For all their sonic maturity, there’s a simplicity in the lyrics as together PANGEA rifle through the junk drawer of young emotion: the title track’s self-loathing, the aggressive apathy of “Sick Shit”, the destructive escapism on “River”. So much relatability tucked inside such confident, fun genre-blending and production makes Badillac one of the most accessible records to come from the thriving West Coast garage scene. –Ben Kaye
28. Swans – To Be Kind
God, Michael Gira, would it kill you to just once grace us with a record that didn’t force people to wring their brains out like a wet sponge afterwards? Well, yeah, otherwise it’s really not a Swans record. On To Be Kind, Gira proves once again that his grab bag of weird, off-putting musical ideas is virtually bottomless. There are tracks that sound like cranky Tom Waits blues joints (“A Little God in My Hands”), others that tinker with loudly ambitious guitar rock (“Oxygen”), and still others that unfurl cryptically at an almost glacial pace (“She Loves Us”). The album’s idiosyncrasies might not play well with those lacking for patience, but Gira has always been fearless about drawing lines in the sand. To Be Kind is a record that’s explicitly for someone and not everyone, but its willingness to preach to its own gnarly choir stays refreshing. –Ryan Bray
27. Damien Rice – My Favourite Faded Fantasy
After 2006’s 9 Crimes, Irish singer-songwriter Damien Rice took eight years to make a follow-up. While he was never especially elusive beforehand, that near-decade transformed the balladeer into a bona fide enigma. His time spent out of the spotlight led to productive bouts of processing heartbreak and isolation, two strong emotions that went into the making of My Favourite Faded Fantasy. Enlisting marquee producer Rick Rubin, who helped him shift from minimal acoustic love songs to maximalist orchestral pieces, Rice came up with something sweeping and beautiful. The opening title track and closer “Long Long Way” find Rice singing in falsetto, filling the role left by his former collaborator Lisa Hannigan. While there are symphonic and lush offerings like “It Takes a Lot to Know a Man” and “I Don’t Want to Change You”, songs like “The Greatest Bastard” and “Colour Me In” prove that Rice can still write heart-wrenching folk songs. –Josh Terry
26. Pharmakon – Bestial Burden
Margaret Chardiet is Pharmakon. She’s also this album. On Bestial Burden, she chokes, she heaves, she coughs, she purges, she essentially shreds her vocal cords with a rusty nail. The end result is an odd assembly of industrial noise that sounds as if someone stripped the audio tracks from Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chain Saw Massacre and baked them over rare recordings of ancient tribal drumming. It’s a terrifying and unnerving album that chills past the bone deep into the very marrow within. Look no further than its mutilated album cover, an homage to Chardiet’s emergency surgery that left her bedridden for three weeks. “Being treated like a piece of meat while in the hospital had a huge impact on some of these ideas behind the album,” she told Pitchfork back in August. No shit. Not one artist this year pushed themselves as hard into their music as Chardiet does here. By torturing her own loins, she crafted an aural Necronomicon that legitimately haunts with primal aggression, rotting malaise, and sobering themes of mortality. If you’ve often thought about death, especially your own, consider this a premonition. –Michael Roffman
25. ScHoolboy Q – Oxymoron
TDE is taking over. And this year, Oxymoron fuels the coup with the most fire. The intricate album swings high and low, with shrill sound bites and gritty verses, to illustrate ScHoolboy Q’s transition from drug-dealing Crip to stand-up dad and star. It’s common practice for rappers to tell the tale of their dark pasts, but Q reaches a level of self-awareness that most fail to achieve. “I just stopped selling crack today,” he shrieks on “Prescription/Oxymoron”, the album’s most personal track, which details his addiction to prescription drugs while he sold them.
He admits that he juxtaposed his daughter’s voiceovers with OxyContin-dealing lyrics to convey the oxymoron of his life: making an illicit living to support his daughter. And Q prides himself on the details. He doesn’t release mixtapes and EPs every other month; he sits in the studio, working out every kink, perfecting the production, “just tryna to get to you, baby.” Kendrick’s good kid m.A.A.d city led the crew in 2012, Oxymoron snags 2014, and rest assured, whichever Top Dawg album rises to the occasion next, it’s going to be huge. –Danielle Janota
24. Ty Segall – Manipulator
Manipulator is the culmination of a great many things for Ty Segall. Completed over the course of 14 months, the record combines a number of styles he’s experimented with over the years. Equal parts garage, psych, punk, noise, stoner, lo-fi, and glam rock, Manipulator never feels like it’s toying with you, but instead gives a little bit of everything you could possibly want or expect. For a man with his hands in so many pots, Segall remains a consummate professional while jumping from one project to another, always throwing himself entirely into whatever concept is currently in his scope.
That ability to shift from style to style is showcased more than ever on Manipulator, with Segall finally allowing himself to blend his many skills. Traditionally, Segall has stuck to one genre per record (the ballistic psych rock of Slaughterhouse or the acoustic stoner ballads of last year’s Sleeper), so to see him finally unhinge the floodgates and let the entirety of his musical persona bleed into his longest record is something truly special. –Pat Levy
23. Hiss Golden Messenger – Lateness of Dancers
Last January, M.C. Taylor participated in a stirring tribute to the late songwriter Jason Molina at The Hideout in Chicago. On its surface, Songs: Molina – A Memorial Electric Co. was a somber way to start the year, but the show left those in attendance with something to look forward to in the wake of tragedy. Much of this had to do with Taylor, who lent his exuberant twang to Molina standards “The Dark Don’t Hide It” and “What Comes After the Blues”, squeezing moments of triumph and catharsis from songs that had seemed the antithesis of both. Such tricks are by now old hat for the 38-year-old Taylor, whose roots outfit Hiss Golden Messenger released the fantastic Lateness of Dancers in September.
A Southern Californian who has adopted the American South as his physical and spiritual home, Taylor has a voice that’s both hopeful and world-weary. Lateness of Dancers is his group’s fifth proper full-length, but in many ways it feels like the first chapter of a new story. Along with longtime collaborator Scott Hirsch, Taylor has created an album that matches the intimacy of his earlier work while setting a new standard for lush, expansive production. Highlight “Mahogany Dread” exemplifies this, with a melody that sounds like an updated take on Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams”. “The dead here, they never go away,” Taylor muses, and one can’t help but think again of Molina. His influence — and the influence of a whole tradition of confessional songwriters — is all over Hiss Golden Messenger, which is finding new ways to make music an act of spiritual cleansing. –Collin Brennan
22. Perfume Genius – Too Bright
Mike Hadreas turns away from the light on the cover of his third album, Too Bright. The sequins on his shoulder flash gold as the light creeps around his neck, flaring up strands of his slicked-down hair. The album sees Hadreas at his most brazen, but it also spends plenty of time in the shadows.
You get the industrial crunch of “Longpig” and “Grid”, sure. There are the hollers and woofs on “Queen”, the closest Perfume Genius has come to a real pop single. You have the demented waltz of “My Body”. And then there are the soft moments in the darkness, where Hadreas whispers lines like “I am too tired to hold myself carefully.”
These songs are dark the way a chapel’s always dark: to focus the light outside through the stained glass. “In an alternate ribbon of time/ My dances were sacred,” sings Hadreas on the bare piano number “Don’t Let Them In”. “My lisp was evidence/ I spoke for both spirits.” What marks him as “other” in this universe could have pushed him closer to transcendence in another. His piano trills at the high end, while cellos low from somewhere distant.
Too Bright exhausts itself with the yearning to blast away the shell of corporeality and slip through the air like light. It’s queer to its bones, and not just because its author paints his nails: queer as in haunted, restless, hungry. Queer as in “this body is not enough for me.” –Sasha Geffen
21. Shellac – Dude Incredible
Terraform may be the one with the spaceships, but Dude Incredible is Shellac’s one true piece of science fiction. And just to clarify, that’s science fiction in the same way Heavy Metal magazine is science fiction — art not so much concerned with addressing mankind’s flaws and offering solutions to them, but rather reveling in the killing, fucking, and aimless wandering of the human race. And it’s done all to the tune of math rock that’s somehow as primitive as it is intricate, much like the apes — ahem, hominids — at the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
If those primates had stumbled across a giant vinyl copy of Dude Incredible instead of an alien-planted monolith, there’s no doubt it would set off a similar biological switch in their brains, one that activates mindless copulation and the construction of steel cities in the desert. Ugly? Sure. “He Came in Me” is about as ugly (and funny) as a song called “He Came in Me” should be. But in a year where some of the best albums dealt with optimism and perseverance, there was room for just a little bit of ugliness, especially when it’s played with such infectious momentum. —Dan Caffrey
20. Lil Herb – Welcome to Fazoland
Chicago’s Lil Herb is among the most interesting young rappers from rap’s most packed region, a 19-year-old phenom wise beyond his years. He’s gone toe to toe with many of the city’s other emerging talents — Lil Bibby, Lil Reese, Lil Durk, King L, Fredo Santana — and won, and he raps in a way that is accessible but doesn’t alienate purists pining for syllabic acrobatics. Herb writes like a correspondent reporting live from a war zone, and his acuity has grabbed the attention of many of the genre’s biggest stars.
Herb’s breakout tape, Welcome to Fazoland, established him as a player both in the drill scene and the national rap landscape — and earned him fans in the likes of Nicki Minaj and Common. (Drake already cosigned Herb last year.) Fazoland mixes soul samples and rattling trap subs, but it never mixes messages: It’s street rap that notes the innate sociopolitical nature of street life, doing so without the weighty, often tiresome preaching angle of conscious rap. –Sheldon Pearce
19. Todd Terje – It’s Album Time
Norway’s Todd Olsen (aka Todd Terje) has cultivated a growing underground following with his cheeky space-disco exploits. A prolific remixer, Terje had yet to release a full-length effort prior to 2014, making his debut’s It’s Album Time title that much more comedic. Satiated with the tones of disco and classic Chicago house, It’s Album Time is prime listening for all of those that generally avoid the repetition of these club genres.
Terje rarely allows more than a few bars to run before shifting to a new melody, breaking in a fresh sample or infusing some found sounds into the prevailing poolside vibes. The ease with which Terje twists from funky lounge house (“Leisure Suit Preben”) to outrun (“Delorean Dynamite”) and enchanting electropop (“Johnny and Mary” featuring Bryan Ferry) is the result of countless hours spent understanding his production tools and identifying his unique language. Just because the tracks might be far more whimsical than the IDM of Aphex Twin or Arca’s ambient industrial vibes, Terje’s time spent behind the console was no less demanding. On the flipside, fitting so many complex digital thoughts into such a beautifully structured framework is a much more daunting endeavor. –Derek Staples
The time before “I woke up like this” had entered into our public lexicon barely registers in my memory. It was as though we all opened our eyes on the morning of Beyoncé´’s release with prior knowledge of it, like a software update pushed directly to our brains in our sleep. With zero notice (and a day after we published our list of 2013’s Top Albums), Beyoncé was everywhere, forcing us to reevaluate all of our preconceived notions of modern femininity and female sexuality. Motherhood is both joyful and challenging; sex within a monogamous relationship can actually be pretty hot; beautiful women are more than just sex objects.
None of these themes were especially groundbreaking, but the honest, explicit way that Beyoncé thrust them into our faces was jaw-dropping. Not every track on Beyoncé soars, but the ones that do are damn near unforgettable from the first listen — from the relentless, dirty bass of “Drunk in Love” to the heart-swelling, sugary pop perfection of “XO”. With the release of Beyoncé, Beyoncé Knowles took a major leap forward as an artist, a brand, and an icon, while never compromising the honesty and strength that made us love her in the first place. –Katherine Flynn
17. Sharon Van Etten – Are We There
When you’re afraid of nothing and dive heart-first into a whirling vat of love, there’s a chance you will end up gnawing your way out the other side broken and bitter from it all. But to entertain a small hope that might allay the heartache is both a no-shit truism and the only coping mechanism we have. Sharon Van Etten uses both. She fights her way out of devastation with hope. With each album she presses further into the void, but this time that void slices open and her pain runs raw. Throughout Are We There, words escape Van Etten before she can even properly consider them, before she is aware they’ve sprung from her mind, are about to be shaped by her mouth, and will fly out between her lips (“I washed your dishes, then I shit in your bathroom”).
With its softly descending piano, synths, and R&B chords, Are We There’s ornate batch of songs build on Van Etten’s lyrics, for in the midst of heartache it was music that restored her soul. The rhythm is imbued with a superb sense of devastation: “Break my legs, so I won’t walk to you/ Cut my tongue so I can’t talk to you.” If that bitter blend of delusion and desperation isn’t a picture-perfect distillation of what it means to live in this era, then I really don’t know what is. Are We There is a temporary sanctuary bound tightly by Van Etten’s naked pain and doubt. I suppose the phantom question mark in the title is louder due to its absence — it’s open-ended, whispering where she is and where she needs us to be. –Lior Phillips
16. Weezer – Everything Will Be Alright in the End
A mother says the title of Weezer’s ninth album in the first track’s opening moments, comforting her child. If this album were the end of the band’s career, it would indeed be “alright.” But, fortunately, this doesn’t seem to be the case with Everything Will Be Alright in the End. The band’s return to form is a reminder that Rivers Cuomo and co. still have much to offer the alternative rock universe, whether it’s fashionable to like them or not. In this light, the new record comes across strangely comforting.
Cuomo once said about his band’s classic sophomore record, Pinkerton, “I’m not coloring anything or softening anything. This is who I am and if you don’t like it … well, we should probably part ways, and I’m just gonna tell you the very worst parts of myself.” That Cuomo seems to be back on Everything Will Be Alright in the End, with single “Back to the Shack” stating, “I had to go and make a few mistakes so I could find out who I am/ I’m letting all of these feelings out even if it means I fail.” Those lyrics could easily describe his band’s last five or so albums, and delivering this record, with that apology, puts the entirety of Weezer’s career in a different, much more favorable light. –Philip Cosores
I Never Learn may or may not be on par with, say, Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks — let’s not get carried away, though Lykke Li’s first breakup album and third overall is pretty undeniable. Though just nine songs in 32 minutes, it swoops you as convincingly as, say, Beck’s Morning Phase, thanks in part to the studio guidance of Greg Kurstin (T-Swift, Lana Del Rey, Sia) and Bjorn Yttling of Peter Bjorn and John. While the album maintains an unmistakable breakup album feel, there’s still variety: see the contrast of the piano plinks and towering drums of lead single “No Rest for the Wicked” (with its hurricane-force lines “I let my good one down/ I let my true love die”); the even more cathartic pop of “Gunshot”, possibly too abrasive in its imagery to be a true hit; the skeletal acoustic strums and intentionally shaky singing of “Love Me Like I’m Not Made of Stone”; and the glorious choir of “Heart of Steel”, the album’s shiniest moment. Thanks to I Never Learn, Lykke Li is now spearheading a movement of women not so much devastated by their man as they are strengthened in an initially brutal way. –Michael Madden
14. Strand of Oaks – HEAL
Confession: Prior to this year, I hardly knew anything about Strand of Oaks. I’d heard Timothy Showalter’s name mentioned by fellow critics and thought the medieval plague doctor on the front of Pope Killdragon was pretty cool, but that was about it. I had no idea what the music itself sounded like. So, when I saw Showalter’s ponderous, heavily bearded visage on the front of HEAL, I took it for a metal record, probably a relatively non-threatening one given the absence of skulls, sickles, and star-beasts. While HEAL is heavy, it’s definitely not metal.
And that’s the point. It’s an album concerned with nothing except honesty, a safe haven where a former schoolteacher can grow out his beard, get tattoos, cry over the death of Jason Molina, sing Smashing Pumpkins songs in the mirror, and talk about infidelity (and, more importantly, true love) in unflinching detail, regardless of how lame or contradictory any of those things may be to some folks. Because, in Showalter’s world, there are no contradictions. There are no genres. You just are who you are. So much fuss has been made over the album’s backstory — the self-loathing, the marital darkness, the redemption — but at the end of the day, HEAL has a much simpler message that shines through all of its shadows, one that makes it the most life-affirming album of 2014: Be yourself. —Dan Caffrey
13. Lana Del Rey – Ultraviolence
It’s genuinely satisfying when musicians not only meet expectations on the album following their break into fame but exceed them. It’s a difficult feat that only the most self-aware artists can achieve, and that’s why it was pulled off with ease by Lana Del Rey. Kissed by the vintage production touch of The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, Ultraviolence languidly drifts from the pop inklings of Born to Die to a darker, more sedated place.
It’s easy to mistake Ultraviolence as an ode to the past when Del Rey references ’60s icons and styles while lamenting her broken relationships, but Ultraviolence is one of the most millennial efforts of the year. By adapting music styles of old while identifying with the new generation, she captures the conflicting essence of millennials: tired of being patronized by older generations but obsessed with the vintage because age seems to warrant authenticity. To those who don’t understand her sentiment towards the newer generation: “If you don’t get it, then forget it/ So I don’t have to fucking explain it.” —Danielle Janota
12. Owen Pallett – In Conflict
This was an apex year for Owen Pallett. Arcade Fire’s most reliable five-tool collaborator received an Academy Award nomination for the Her soundtrack. He also bared hidden turmoils across In Conflict. The album entertains apathy but still gets excited about venturing into parts unknown. “Song for Five & Six” and “Soldier’s Rock” reinforce the notion that it’s time to pick up the pieces and move on. But move on where? And to what end?
Tracks like “The Sky Behind the Flag” also offer up Pallett’s bittersweet composition with a bunting of tones that unfurl into a vast aural tapestry. The music is ripe with all manner of blips, blorps, and impassioned introspection. The latter half of In Conflict then races toward an anxious albeit encouraging end, with high intensity cuts like “The Riverbed” and “Infernal Fantasy” upping both the tempo and the stakes.
The biggest highlight is Pallett’s enchanted vocals, which pair incredibly well with his meditations. They’re like a siren song of contrition warning others to avoid the emotional rocks and hazards that scuttled a life once sweet. In 2003, The Postal Service hurried down a similar route with Give Up. Now, in 2014, these poignant barbs arrive with more complexity, like forlorn packages dropped off by a guided quadrocopter. –Dan Pfleegor
11. Sun Kil Moon – Benji
Sun Kil Moon’s sixth album (not counting the records Mark Kozelek has released under his own name and as Red House Painters) received a remarkable amount of attention for something so seemingly simple: a middle-aged man playing spare songs on guitar that tell highly detailed personal accounts of tragedy, all deeply embedded with the fear of mortality. Okay, maybe it’s not that simple. The style isn’t anything completely new for Kozelek, but if the last decade or so of his career has been building to anything, it’s this album.
And then Kozelek’s lack of a filter went and turned bystanders against him when he lashed out at The War on Drugs and women at his concerts. But it’s a testament to the power of the record that it can still stand tall on its own. Eighteen years after he released the classic Songs for a Blue Guitar, Kozelek has returned to top form on Benji. Hopefully, he does nothing further to tarnish his reputation between now and the next masterpiece. –Philip Cosores
10. Freddie Gibbs & Madlib – Piñata
It seems like rap in 2014 was all about finding the right people to work with. Less than ever is the genre a solo endeavor, with even the most dynamic, singular artists having a producer or a consistent feature to lean on. Run the Jewels might be the top dogs, but Freddie Gibbs and Madlib met up to put out a 17-track collaboration that blends ambivalent nostalgia about Gibbs’ hard-knocks past and Madlib’s fusion-heavy beats. The combination of Gary-bred Gibbs’ “do what it takes to survive” mindset and Madlib’s experimental style leads to some of the best genre-bending of the year, with beats that don’t quite sync up to the lyrics aesthetically but still serve them up in a way that no one else seems willing to try.
How often do musicians seek to use production that doesn’t perfectly fit their style? Not only does Gibbs do this on Piñata, but he takes Madlib’s production to a level it wouldn’t reach with a better-fitting rapper, elevating the scarcer beats into something special like “Thuggin’” or “Knicks”. Tracks with which a rapper like Earl Sweatshirt or Captain Murphy would’ve put out their regular fare Gibbs takes and turns on their head with poignant lyrics about memories from his dealing past and the things he’s still willing to do. Piñata leaves the listener to wonder how far Gibbs has come, knowing he’s doing better but unable to shake the feeling he’d still do some of the things he raps about. The juxtaposition of undying realness from Gibbs and the genre-chameleon abilities of Madlib yields one of the most tonally interesting records of the year. –Pat Levy
9. Spoon – They Want My Soul
Spoon were in a precarious position coming into They Want My Soul. As a band, they were burnt out after what they considered the overkill of five albums and overlapping touring cycles in just nine years. Fans were holding their breath for something to pull them out of the fog left by 2010’s Transference. Everyone was looking for a comeback record — a sign of the band reinvigorated — and to the delight of all, the Austin boys delivered.
Throughout the record, there’s audible evidence that the four-year gap spent producing, releasing solo material, and working in new outfits was just what the band members needed to stretch themselves out. Back together, it’s clear they were ready to have fun again as Spoon. You can hear it in the swagger of “Rent I Pay”, the jogging new wave of “Outlier”, the jaunt of “Let Me Be Mine”. All these parts are still clearly Spoon, but they’re moving in new and engaging ways.
The band credits a lot of that to their new producer. When asked during our fan Q&A what their favorite piece of studio gear was while recording They Want My Soul, bassist Rob Pope responded, “Dave Fridmann,” a sentiment Britt Daniel seconded. Fridmann’s responsible for those inimitable guitar grinds on “Knock Knock Knock” and the loose flow of “Rent I Pay”. The addition of Divine Fits’ Alex Fischel also incorporated fresh textures, like the distinct sheens covering “Inside Out” and “New York Kiss”.
Spoon have been defining their sound — and the sound of modern indie rock — for over two decades. At that point, the challenge becomes maintaining an identity without falling into repetition. What makes They Want My Soul so impressive is not just what they made but how they made it. To see a band return from their longest break ever, bringing in all new elements yet still feeling like a revival, is the kind of comeback that music needs to see. It proves that a veteran band can dare to let themselves grow, change up their game, and still score big. –Ben Kaye
8. St. Vincent – St. Vincent
Three years ago, Annie Clark sang rhetorically about domestic issues from a Panton chair in New York’s Lower East Side on her greatest work to date, Strange Mercy. Since then, she’s toured the world, loved a Giant alongside Talking Heads mastermind David Byrne, and further embraced her own alias, St. Vincent. “So I pray to all to make me a real girl,” she sings on “Prince Johnny”, arguably the strongest track of her eponymous fourth studio album. But here’s the thing: She’s been a real girl, and now she’s a real star — an alien watching from above with the same keen eye responsible for “Surgeon”, “Marrow”, or any other anthem that’s turned a critic’s head or won a fan’s heart.
This year, Clark reinvented everything about her St. Vincent persona. She tussled up her hair into a vacant gray, installed a robotic spirit, and choreographed an entire stage show that was elegant, spooky, and hypnotic. From within, she dislodged her eyes and tossed them up into the air where she could expand upon her themes and tackle the world at large as a remote sentient being. Everything about St. Vincent now sounds bigger — from the Minimoog designs to the extraterrestrial guitar work, to her lyrical minefields and landscapes. “Am I the only one in the only world?” she at first speculates, eventually conceding by album’s end that she’s “holding on and on and on, enough, enough, enough.”
In between, she pleads ignorance (“Birth in Reverse”), loses herself online (“Huey Newton”), lampoons our second lives (“Digital Witness”), and then slowly returns to Earth with a series of personal, genuine affectations: the maternal embrace of “I Prefer Your Love”, the existential dread of “Regret”, the venomous jealousy of “Bring Me Your Loves”, the devoted art of being a “Psychopath”, and the post-depression wisdom of “Every Tear Disappears”. It’s slightly colder than her previous works, but the beauty of the album is that the material exhibits a friendly warmth as Clark steps closer towards the front lines. By “Severed Crossed Fingers”, she’s ready to say hello and shake your hand. Go for the hug and never let go — she’s a keeper. –Michael Roffman
7. FKA twigs – LP1
British singer Tahliah Barnett, aka FKA twigs, started her career in the background as a “Video Girl”, a backing dancer for well-known musicians. Now, she’s at the forefront as a solo artist, leading the pack of forward-thinking pop artists with her ambitious and experimental debut album, LP1. A commanding presence on the record, on video, and live, twigs combines her delicate coo with modulated industrial beats that can turn from sensual to menacing in a second. It’s a powerful dichotomy, a tightrope that twigs effectively balances throughout. All of the songs on her debut are hypnotic, undulating with her commanding but wispy voice, hearkening back to groundbreaking acts like Björk, Portishead, and Cocteau Twins.
For the LP, twigs enlists a variety of collaborators including Blood Orange’s Dev Hynes and rising producer Arca. Despite some of the marquee talent involved, twigs’ vision is singular and unimpeded, the guest spots highlighting her curation skills rather than distracting from her songs. An album full of lust, pain, and longing, LP1 explores intimacy and loneliness, with songs like “Two Weeks” aiming to lure a man away from another lover with overt lines like “Higher than a motherfucker … I can fuck you better than her.” Elsewhere, “Lights On” is fraught with sensuality and nakedness as twigs sings that “when I trust you we can do it with the lights on.” These songs are all full of sexuality, vulnerability, and power, serving as a mirror to inner desperation and desire. –Josh Terry
6. Against Me! – Transgender Dysphoria Blues
“Your tells are so obvious,” shouts Laura Jane Grace in what’s maybe the most triumphant opener of the year. “Shoulders too broad for a girl.” It’s the first time she’s kicked off an album since she took her own name, her real name, since she told it to the rest of the world. “Transgender Dysphoria Blues”, from the album of the same name, might boast the most devastating first verse of an Against Me! record since Grace sang about her grandparents back in 2002 on “Pints of Guinness Make You Strong”. It carries the same weight.
Transgender Dysphoria Blues never shies away from that heaviness, but it also never stops feeling like a victory. Grace packs so much fear into these songs: fear of violence, abandonment, disappointment, change, and death. These aren’t rare shadows for people working through a transition, especially for women who were told for years that they were men. Grace stares them down with a fire that lights up hope in its wake.
Strangely enough, the album’s most hopeful song takes place in a pair of caskets. Grace wrote “Two Coffins” for her young daughter as a reminder that even if not all love is unconditional, hers would last through death. Is that morbid? A little — you don’t get too many songs about a beloved child’s “little moon face” that also imagine that face sealed underground. But death sticks around whether we imagine it or not. For Grace, embracing the possibility of the worst is a cornerstone of her courage.
The sixth Against Me! album is a landmark for a number of reasons — their first since dropping their major label, their first since Grace’s transition — but it’s also a massive declaration of triumph and, most of all, freedom. We close our own cell doors, or the world closes them for us. From the album’s first words, we know Grace has decided to kick hers down. –Sasha Geffen
5. Caribou – Our Love
“The primary impulse on this record was to make something that was generous in the sense that it was for everybody, not just for me locked in a studio by myself,” said Dan Snaith (better known as Caribou) during press meet-ups leading to the release of his seventh studio album, Our Love. This pop focus comes on the heels (albeit a couple years removed) of the funky patchwork of Jiaolong, the first Snaith release via his Daphni moniker. As Daphni, emotions and stories were tertiary to the sample-heavy energy of the collection, a disc intended for left-field clubland. Our Love balances that after-hours hedonism with the poignant interpersonal wanderings of his earlier work, perfecting a unique vernacular that bridges underground techno with heartfelt indie pop.
Like the brothers Lawrence (of Disclosure fame), Snaith explores a fascination with reformulating favorite underground UK dance sounds. Album opener “Can’t Do Without You” commences with a slow-building garage melody, an energy that reaches spiraling heights during the jittery “Julia Brightly” and “Your Love Will Set You Free”. Post-dubstep then serves as the platform for the tortured echoes of “All I Ever Need”. Akin to new romance, these familiarities build a level of comfort with the track, but it is the wonky eccentricities that urge repeat visits. There is an uncontested ease with which Snaith intertwines these one-off melodies into the album’s prevailing tech-house, a definitive Caribou fingerprint that is both weightless and innocent yet anxiously psychedelic. Now that everyone is racing to the top of the Beatport charts with identical arrangements, Snaith hones in on the honesty of his compositions.
As the world goes electronic, artists must work even harder to maintain the humanity that brings so many people together through music. Our Love is proof that artists can adopt timeless dance floor tactics without losing themselves in the hysteria. –Derek Staples
4. Cloud Nothings – Here and Nowhere Else
In Mike Roffman’s April story about Cloud Nothings, Dylan Baldi explained the angst ratio present in his then-brand new album, Here and Nowhere Else: “There’s a sort of faux-existential ‘que sera sera’ thing going on. But that’s just where my head is at now.” In a society full of endless status updates, the trio’s insistence that they’re not telling you all they’re going through makes the non-conformist burn of their indie punk that much more effective. Instead of spelling out specific issues, Cloud Nothings capture existential dread with the filter of plausible deniability that anybody going through those feelings would put up to keep others from realizing their struggle.
Despite that negation of emotion and the howled intensity of the music, Here and Nowhere Else is full of sing-along hooks and fist-pumping rhythms. It’s an approachable album, but the emotions and messages entertained are kept at an arm’s distance. Baldi opens “Pattern Walks” by describing some vague moonlit anxiety on top of Jayson Gerycz’s hellfire drumming, then repeats the song’s title as some sort of mantra. Does it mean anything? Is it just a coincidence that it sounds like he’s shouting “padded walls?” It’s not that he’s not making any connection at all: “I can feel your pain and I feel alright ’bout it,” he repeats on “Now Hear In”.
But after sitting through the pain and weight and disconnect for 28 minutes, closer “I’m Not Part of Me” offers some respite, though still demanding an identity that can be just Baldi’s rather than something to be defined and refined by the outside world. Sure, there’s denial, and plenty of nots, and the pains of the past haunting him, but there’s also a separation from those pains and a hope for the future. If he’s going to be not-something, “not you” is pretty direct. He’s himself, and that in and of itself is enough. He’s “moving toward a new idea.” That new idea is maybe not so new to the world, but it’s new to him and simple and beautiful and obvious: “I’m learning how/ To be here and nowhere else/ How to focus on what I can do myself.” After portraying the swirl of confusion and the demands to be identified by the world and filtered into a specific category, being here, now, and yourself is about as specific and powerful as it gets — even if Baldi wants to convince you he’s just shrugging. –Adam Kivel
3. Angel Olsen – Burn Your Fire for No Witness
When Angel Olsen set out to record Burn Your Fire for No Witness, she hardly expected to walk out of the studio with something so masterful and raw. But only 10 days later, with the help of renowned producer John Congleton, the North Carolina singer-songwriter had managed to do just that by weathering a sea of change that threatened to unravel her.
Burn Your Fire (her second album and follow-up to 2012’s Half Way Home) isn’t the loud sort of victory that you set upon a mantel like a trophy. Instead, it serves as an intimate triumph for Olsen, a brutally honest representation of her private resolution and personal liberation from the demons that sought to turn her world upside down: the shackles of a failed relationship, the commotion of settling into a new home, the chaos stemming from disrupted plans, and the inner struggle of simply trying to be, to push on when life seemed intent on stopping her. Olsen wrote the LP amidst such obstacles during a year defined mostly by transformation — including her departure from Bonnie “Prince” Billy and The Babblers, signing with new label Jagjaguwar, and the formation of a new band — and these songs are her battle scars. In many ways, they speak to our own emotional blemishes, too.
Though the tracks themselves may be minimalist in nature — some barely-there folk ballads featuring her haunting warble and a delicate finger-picked guitar — they echo their weighty subjects and burn long, hard, and deep. Like those folk pioneers that came before her, Leonard Cohen and Emmylou Harris, Olsen’s is a voice that needs to be heard, not only for her sake but for ours. From the punk growls of “Forgiven/Forgotten” to the piercing desperation of “Unfucktheworld” to the mesmerizing ache of “White Fire”, Olsen proves to be resilient and inspiring, a fighter who is unafraid to admit defeat and is somehow even able to summon great power from it.
“It sucks that nothing is going your way, and you can’t have everything you want, but then life wouldn’t be life,” she told CoS staffer Josh Terry earlier this year. Olsen’s absolutely right: Burn Your Fire assures us that life requires the spoils and the suffering, and that something meaningful can be found as much in the painfully blistering flames as in the embers. –Michelle Geslani
2. Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 2
Apart from its surface appeal as a frequently funny album by two guys with tons of agreeable things to say, Run the Jewels’ second effort is a run-and-gun hardcore rap record at heart: just unrelentingly fast-paced, eminently vulgar (“This year we iller than a nun in a cumshot…”), and sonically unforgiving. It’s efficient too, the same length as Illmatic but swiftly plucking from hip-hop’s last two decades or so, whether it’s Killer Mike channeling a young Ice Cube throughout the album or taking cues from Future’s slippery “Move That Dope” verse on “Oh My Darling Don’t Cry”. Though it starts with Mike hyping the album even more savagely than that kid who opens Chief Keef’s “Love Sosa” (“I’m finna bang this bitch the FUCK out!” Mike vows), it’s not all sheer force; behold “Crown”, which features one of the most personal verses of Mike’s career, as he remembers the haunting decisions he made as a drug dealer. Still, the appeal of Run the Jewels has to be their desire to absolutely terminate any and all competition.
“Chemistry” is tough to quantify, but these guys have it, isolated as they were in the studio with enough weed to fill a bomb shelter. No matter how many albums Mike and El make together, the bi-coastal narrative will stick: Mike brings the stomp of Atlanta and the South (not to mention his smarts as a former philosophy major at Morehouse College), while the New Yorkian El raps his ginger ass off in a slightly more traditional way and, on the beats, wields the serpentine, darkly psychedelic aesthetic of his Company Flow days and solo work. The result isn’t just “murder mayhem melodic music” but also a seamless mix of black and white, mainstream and underground (or maybe underground and deeper underground), and East Coast and Third Coast. That’s not to mention the room they make for even more diversity, as the guest list includes an out-of-nowhere Zack de la Rocha on “Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)”, Gangsta Boo spitting in the face of sexual double standards on “Love Again (Akinyele Back)”, and flawless Beyonce producer Boots lending his ghoulish vocals to “Early”. Just think: if only the social and political fuckboys that Mike and El routinely take down, from prison wardens on “Close Your Eyes…” to “fellows at the top” in general, had such fine people skills. –Michael Madden
1. The War on Drugs – Lost in the Dream
Pressure is a cruel mistress. Its impending presence is both the wild animal that chases us when we’re running our fastest and a trigger that, like nothing else, can tempt us to stop moving altogether. Some, like Adam Granduciel, can’t help but see this paradox everywhere, so it makes sense that it’s the figure in the crosshairs of the best album he’ll likely ever make.
In the first 10 minutes of The War on Drugs’ last album, Slave Ambient, Granduciel recited faded dreams (“In a dream you hold a knife/ In another dream you die/ It’s just a dream that we had once that went down in the night”) and encouraged himself to pull it together by loosening up (“Pick yourself up right down the line/ Lose yourself in your mind”). Revealing himself as a natural highway-dwelling rock singer while still fumbling here and there to pinpoint ideas, Granduciel was clearly right on the brink of finding his best voice, poised to drop a bomb on his next outing. That’s pressure. But by steadfastly staying true to himself, he skies over the bar with Slave Ambient’s follow-up three years down the line — an album which basically devotes its first 10 minutes to an ode to pressure. Granduciel is most himself when loose and dreaming, and though pressure lurks for him around every corner, he refuses to let it break his spirit. Laid-back? No: Defiantly laid-back. The album is, importantly, Lost in the Dream and not Freaking the Fuck Out.
That’s what enables Granduciel to devote 60 minutes of his best material to his battles in finding one lousy moment without anxiety, to slow down time for once, to beat back the relentless threat of mental illness and sound as easy as the wind all the while. He knows the dread will still poke its way through now and then; on the album’s one non-song, “The Haunting Idle”, he conducts an orchestra of a million effects to transcribe the murkier colors on the edges of the cover art — a photo of his apartment, where he spent an unhealthy amount of time holed up while writing Lost in the Dream — away from the window’s light represented in the defibrillating next track, “Burning”. There, Granduciel imagines himself on fire and struggling to keep a ship from capsizing, a concerning metaphor immediately preceded by his single most emphatic, joyous “whoo!” on an album with a lot of them.
In tune with Granduciel’s way of evoking synchronicity, there’s a cosmic truth to Lost in the Dream triumphing this year. For one, Granduciel is personally seizing the crown off the head of his musical soulmate, Kurt Vile, who made last year’s finest classic rock-rooted album and also opened it with a brilliant, 10-minute statement of purpose. (The two are former songwriting partners and owe their careers to each other.) And, for Secretly Canadian, the Indiana-based label behind every War on Drugs release, it’s a poignant landmark following the year it lost its godfather, Jason Molina, who a decade ago was doing more than anyone to keep Americana exciting. That’s a feather Granduciel can now wear in his cap (or on his guitar neck) because he has yet to crack under the pressure: a constant source of torment for which he couldn’t sound more grateful. –Steven Arroyo