Thursday, April 9, 2015

My (Shamefully Belated) Favorite Albums of 2014

Little known fact: back in 2007, my colleagues and I at my college newspaper, The Lawrentian, were the first people to ever publish a "Best Albums of the Year" list. See? Literally the first. I remember thinking: "Wow, what an innovative idea! So many albums were released this year! Why not rank the ten best ones! How has absolutely not a single person thought of this before?" And the rest is history. Now, seemingly everyone and their mother publishes a "Best Albums of the Year" list. Even the New York Times got into the game last year! How wacky is that?!

Commonly known fact: I am terrible at making posts on this blog in a timely fashion. But, in the interest of carrying on this storied tradition, I still wanted to share my list of favorite albums from last year with the masses (Webster's Dictionary recently amended the definition of "the masses" to mean "six people"). Typically, I write blurbs about most of the albums, but it is already early April and I am engrossed in what has been a really good year for music here in 2015. So, I am not feeling too motivated to write at length about these albums right now. However, I will still share a few words about the top five because I am just that generous. Here's the list:

Honorable Mentions:
Spoon, Ex Hex, Hundred Waters, Protomartyr

20. Parquet Courts- Sunbathing Animal
19. Aphex Twin- Syro
18. Cloud Nothings- Here and Nowhere Else
17. Future Islands- Singles
16. Lydia Loveless- Somewhere Else
15. Caribou- Our Love
14. Todd Terje- It's Album Time
13. Sun Kil Moon- Benji
12. St. Vincent- St.Vincent
11. Mac DeMarco- Salad Days
10. Swans- To Be Kind
9. Strand of Oaks- Heal
8. Ty Segall- Manipulator
7. Real Estate- Atlas
6. Perfume Genius- Too Bright

5. Grouper- Ruins

This album of atmospheric, mostly piano and voice songs is absolutely beautiful. And as long as Webster's Dictionary is making amendments, they might as well put a picture of Grouper's Liz Harris right next to the word "ethereal." This album also includes the lo-fi moment of the year thanks to the microwave oven beep that occurs near the end of "Labyrinth."

4. Angel Olsen- Burn Your Fire For No Witness

On March 12th, 2012, my sister sent me an email entitled "do you know her music?" and a link to "If It's Alive, It Will" from Angel Olsen's debut cassette, Strange Cacti. I was immediately transfixed by Ms. Olsen's unique voice. Since then, it has been a pleasure to watch her improve with each subsequent release, including her first full-length (and what records indicate was my third favorite album of 2012), Halfway Home. 2014's Burn Your Fire For No Witness marked a step forward in nearly every facet of her music-- from the production (courtesy of indie rock's preeminent superproducer, John Congleton), to the song-writing itself, which covered wider ground than Halfway Homes' collection of mostly sparse folk songs. On Witness, Olsen wears the hat of both rocker and bar room balladeer, while still including a healthy mix of lovely folk numbers. Truly outstanding music from one of the most intriguing singer-songwriters to come around in quite some time.

3. Sharon Van Etten- Are We There

This album was the surprise of the year for me. I already was a fan of Van Etten's music, courtesy of yet another fantastic recommendation from my sister shortly after she released Epic in 2011. Like the aforementioned Angel Olsen, Van Etten has a wonderful singing voice and a natural talent for creating hauntingly beautiful songs littered with heartbreak. However, I felt that her 2012 album Tramp was a disappointment-- sounding overproduced and flat at times and not living up to Epic's promise. The songs themselves on Tramp were still good, but something was missing. In what was surely a devastating occurrence for Ms. Van Etten, it failed to make my list of twenty favorite albums of 2012. To my delight, Van Etten's self-produced Are We There not only improved upon its predecessor significantly, it also marks easily her finest album to date. Not exactly an uplifting listen, the album finds Van Etten struggling through a broken relationship. The songs range from sweeping epics like "Your Love is Killing Me" to understated ballads like "I Know, with Van Etten consistently succeeding in captivating me during both the album's sparse and more bombastic moments. She also effectively translated these songs to a live setting, performing a powerful set that was a highlight of last year's Pitchfork Music Festival.

2. D'Angelo and the Vanguard- Black Messiah

Though Sharon Van Etten's Are We There was my personal surprise of the year, D'Angelo's third album was the shock of the music industry last December-- not due to its quality, but because of its unexpectedly abrupt release after more than a decade of waiting from D'Angelo's fans (his last album was the 2000 neo-soul classic Voodoo). Prior to 2012, I only knew D'Angelo as the dude with the ripped abs from the "Untitled (How Does It Feel)" music video that received ample airtime back in my halcyon days of obsessively watching VH1. Then, I attended the Bonnaroo music festival that summer, and I had the pleasure of seeing D'Angelo make his first U.S. concert appearance in 12 years as part of a "Superjam" led by Questlove of The Roots. D'Angelo's appearance was concealed from fans until the moment Questlove announced his name and he walked on stage. I remember merely thinking "huh, neat." However, it was not long before I realized I was witnessing something truly special-- a genius musician returning to the fold and in better form than when he left the public eye following Voodoo. In the interim, my fellow Bonnaroo-goers and I soon learned, D'Angelo had spent a significant amount of time sharpening his guitar and piano playing skills-- leading the Superjam band (made up of many of his Black Messiah collaborators) through an unforgettable set of funky covers by The Beatles, Funkadelic, Led Zeppelin, The Time, and others. Suffice to say, I was instantly converted and have been eagerly anticipating whatever music D'Angelo would put out next-- hoping it would capture the magic of that Bonnaroo set. Amazingly, when Black Messiah finally dropped, I was not let down in the slightest. The album is a complete triumph on every level, with the songs brimming with creativity. Black Messiah is a politically-charged album that clearly owes a debt to classics such as Sly and the Family Stone's There's A Riot Goin' On and yet manages to simultaneously sound fresh and, most of all, vital. Turns out that after nearly 15 years out of the spotlight, D'Angelo has a lot to say about the state of the world. He soundtracks his thoughts with songs that are weird, beautiful, and, of course, funky. An astonishing record that should hold up as a classic.

1. The War on Drugs- Lost In The Dream

At 2:12 PM on Sunday, March 2nd, 2014 I declared, via the prestigious platform of a gchat conversation with my friend Bob, that Lost In The Dream was Album of the Year for 2014. 13 months later, that statement holds true. After typing up that glowing D'Angelo review above I had to think hard about whether Black Messiah deserved the number one slot. But nope, Lost In The Dream is still the album that affected me most last year, probably due to it being genetically engineered to appeal to my taste in music. Their sound was already firmly within my wheelhouse by 2011's Slave Ambient. In what is probably my favorite sentence I have ever read on Pitchfork, they described The War on Drugs' music thusly while reviewing that record: "It's as if the Spiritualized and Springsteen albums filed alphabetically next to one another in your record collection had melted together on a hot August afternoon." That description is still apt, but with Lost in the Dream the band's songwriting took a gigantic leap forward. They announce themselves in a big way with 9-minute opener "Under the Pressure," which barrels ahead with a chugging piano line and epic Mark Knopfler-style guitar soloing. That song cedes to "Red Eyes," which would be the best Springsteen song since "Tunnel of Love" if only it had been written by The Boss himself ("Burning," which sounds like a Born in the USA outtake, would be in the running as well). The album never lets up from there, interspersing plaintive ballads with driving rockers like "An Ocean Between the Waves" (with that song's extended outro providing the best moment on the entire album). Though their sound clearly harkens back to rock luminaries of years past, with this album The War on Drugs manage to channel those influences into something completely unique and exhilarating. An endlessly rewarding listen, Lost In The Dream was the album I most often found myself returning to in 2014.