With the movies forever dying and being uncool and me unable to get into any cool TV shows beyond “The Daily Show” and ones that star Dave Grohl, music has become my second passion. From seeing multiple concerts a month to working on a piece on “Sonic Highways” to actually getting good at guitar, I’ve not only been thinking about music a lot more but also trying to write about it.
2014 was about as good a year for music as it was for movies, in that most years are pretty good when you actually stop to turn it into a list. This year I’d like to think my Top 10 actually mildly resembles a real critic’s. Enjoy!
- St. Vincent – St. Vincent
“Am I the only one/in the only world”? St. Vincent may be from another planet, with polyrhythm synths, funky baritone saxophones, vicious and witty lyrics and squealing guitars that hardly resemble one peppering the entire album. And yet it’s worth begging Annie Clark’s question heard in “Rattlesnake”, as St. Vincent’s self-titled album is her most accessible while unleashing this white-haired monster to the world. “Digital Witness” bounces with a searing attack against the Internet age. The elegant “Prince Johnny” weaves a haunting tale about a vile monarch who brags who he’s “going to bed next.” The sensual “I Prefer Your Love” has a near sacrilegious chorus and an introspective set of verses. And “Bring Me Your Loves” erupts with a flurry of robotic catcalls. The bizarre, ugly energy behind St. Vincent has elevated Clark to the throne of an indie queen and made us worship an alien who really is the only one in the only world.
- The War on Drugs – Lost in the Dream
With Lost in the Dream, The War on Drugs have truly found themselves, creating an album that is such an improvement on the occasionally aimless Slave Ambient, yet one that maintains the rousing mix of that album’s brilliant Americana pop flavor. We hear it in the soulful chorus and harmonica on “Eyes to the Wind,” the aching guitar bends on “Suffering”, the dancing flurry of a solo at the end of “Ocean Beneath the Waves” and in Adam Granduciel’s cathartic yelp on “Red Eyes.” The whole album is layered with an engine beat of a drum constantly pulsing forward and waves of shimmering guitar cascading through. Granduciel’s fretwork here is painfully gorgeous. The sensation he creates is cosmic, a beautiful mix of pleasing ambiance and psychedelia, and it becomes truly easy to get lost in this band’s dream.
- Cloud Nothings – Here and Nowhere Else
With Here and Nowhere Else, Cloud Nothings have taken their breakout hit Attack on Memory and made the whole package faster, louder, punchier, wilder, and most impressive of all, catchier. Dylan Baldi has turned into a fierce songwriter, trimming the fat of his third album to a trim 32 minutes that’s nothing but meat. Baldi unleashes pure chaotic noise and fury on “Psychic Trauma” and “Pattern Walks” in the way that “Wasted Days” first mastered, and he belts out anguish filled death screams on “Just See Fear” and “No Thoughts.” But it’s the album closer “I’m Not Part of Me” that steals the show, a show stopper with a monster hook that could also qualify for song of the summer (just ask Steven Hyden). Guitar rock needs an album this intense and also this memorable.
- Angel Olsen – Burn Your Fire For No Witness
Angel Olsen’s indie-folk sound on Burn Your Fire For No Witness is an album in pain. We see it in the desolate, slow burn of Olsen’s finger picking on the Leonard Cohen-channeling “White Fire”, her pining lyrics on “Iota,” her frail strumming on “Enemy” while singing, “Oh how I wish I could remove this doubt I feel somehow”. And yet at no point does Olsen lose her bite or fortitude. The rocking “Forgiven/Forgotten” and “Hi-Five” are lonely songs that seem to spit at the idea, while “Windows” soars into a gorgeous reverie by the album’s close. Rarely does an album with this much feeling also come across so strong.
- Spoon – They Want My Soul
Spoon has been such a workmanlike indie outfit for so many years now. Their output is anything from post-punky to lo-fi to dreamy, and it seems fitting that the album that combines all these influences is one of their most complete and put together. Best of all, They Want My Soul just kicks. It jumps from the foot stomping “Rent I Pay” to the cascading keys on “Inside Out” to the driving pulse of “Rainy Taxi.” This is an album that’s a catchy, modern, upbeat stab at real guitar rock that doesn’t forget its many roots.
- Ty Segall – Manipulator
To call Ty Segall prolific would be an understatement. He releases multiple albums a year, tours constantly, partakes in side projects and experiments with sounds and inspirations, all without leaving the confines of the garage. Now with his latest album Manipulator he’s put in the time and combined all of his styles into one large, sprawling package. Playing every instrument, Segall shows why he’s such a virtuoso time and again. On “Tall Man, Skinny Lady” he frenetically scurries across his guitar neck in a solo before turning on the speed and the sludge on “It’s Over” and “Feel”. It’s a ferocious album that never relents, and it’s surprisingly one of the most musical and accessible of his career.
- Wye Oak – Shriek
Every time I listened to Wye Oak’s Shriek I had a different reaction. At first it was just a bit too modest, then a bit too obtuse. Now I suspect it is secretly brilliant, and that Wye Oak may just be the best kept indie rock secret today. Jenn Wasner did away with her signature guitar sound on 2011’s genius Civilian and seems to not miss it. Shriek is so strangely dreamy, weightless and melancholy, and yet it truly doesn’t sound like anything other than Wye Oak. The stalking bass lines on “The Tower” and the squealing synths that damn sure sound like guitar on “Glory” are uncanny. And Wasner’s ethereal vocals hold a mysterious power over the whole album, something that’s neither soothing nor haunting. Shriek is an album I can’t quite wrap my head around, but it’s no less transfixing.
- Sun Kil Moon – Benji
At a festival earlier this year, The War on Drugs were playing a set that drowned out Sun Kil Moon on a neighboring stage. Mark Kozelek heard their music and proclaimed them “beer commercial lead-guitar shit.” In the ensuing weeks, Kozelek looked like a bully, a jerk and a nut as he continued to make headlines simply by being around. And yet the raw, bluntly honest lyrics throughout Sun Kil Moon’s Benji leaves little to the imagination as why he comes across as so abrasive. Kozelek’s stream of consciousness confessional has him diving into everything from his love for his parents, his many relationships and his memories of watching The Song Remains the Same, viewing them each with tenderness, viciousness and nostalgia. He’s forced to relive the deaths of his second cousin, uncle, the kids at Newtown and James Gandolfini, all in grim detail. And it’s about the only album ever made that can elicit both a laugh and a tear from a line about Panera Bread. His melodies, sprawled almost randomly across delicate finger-picking, are either poetic ramblings or reveries. Separated from the events this year, Benji might be just an emotionally fraught gem. Knowing Kozelek’s demeanor keeps it from being a masterpiece, and yet makes it much more revealing.
- Real Estate – Atlas
“I had to hear you, just to feel near you,” sings Martin Courtney on the opening track to Real Estate’s shimmering and soulful Atlas. At first glance, Atlas could just be some pleasant dad rock for a sunny afternoon, but to quote a friend, “the album demanded we lean in to appreciate.” Matt Mondanile’s lead guitar is so disarming in a way that’s part George Harrison, part psychedelic, but for the casual listener it will gloss over Courtney’s lyrics of loss, worry and remembrance. “I don’t want to die lonely and uptight,” he sings on catchy “Crime”. “I’m just trying to make some sense of this before I lose another year,” he opines before a trippy coda on “The Bend”. And on “Past Lives,” “This is not the same place I used to know/but it still has that same old sound.” Real Estate have the same charming sound that made them indie darlings on Days, but this is a different, more mature band than we used to know.
- tUnE-yArDs – nikki nack
Perhaps even more so than St. Vincent, Merrill Garbus and her nearly solo-act Tune-Yards proved with 2011’s W H O K I L L that she really did belong to another world. On nikki nack, Garbus has expanded her sound without losing her homemade voice, dropping the ukulele and going deeper into exotic polyrhythms and scattershot toms and clangs on the absolutely infectious “Water Fountain” or the celebratory, “Let’s go crazy” breakdowns on “Sink-O” and “Left Behind.” nikki nack proves to be as melancholy and bitingly witty as its predecessor, singing lyrics that are equal parts scathing and cute. “I’ve spent 12,944 days alive. Amazing how a human being can still thrive,” Garbus sings on “Hey Life” before literally stopping the song for a minute-long segment that sounds like a game of Double Dutch. Throw in a story time interlude and a campfire sing-a-long ‘round a rocking chair, and you’ve got quite the party.
- Future Islands – Singles
Full of bouncy, New Wave synths, simple, danceable bass lines and drum beats and the gruff, yet soulful singing and growls of Samuel Herring, Future Islands have given us a sun-soaked treat. “Seasons (Waiting On You)” is the song that won the summer and Internet, but the album is called Singles, and it is chock full of hits.
- Interpol – El Pintor
At first sounding like a welcome throwback, the flickering guitar riffs and tremolo picking heard on El Pintor is less of Interpol’s atmospheric slow build and more a grand statement. El Pintor finds the band soaring and hopeful in a way they’ve never been.
- Beck – Morning Phase
Beck’s Morning Phase is an absolutely gleaming piece of work, full of delicate melodies, swelling strings and peaceful imagery. A first listen might just sound slow, but the album lingers and resonates with you in a soothing way that beacons the sunrise.
- Sharon van Etten – Are We There?
“Burn my skin so I can’t feel you/Stab my eyes so I can’t see,” Sharon van Etten sings on “You’re Love is Killing Me.” It’s a strong, independent lyric, but on the romantic and heartbreaking Are We There? van Etten shows how dependent she is on her band, ditching the girl-with-a-guitar simplicity for a fuller sound that’s at times edgy and at others operatic.
- The Black Keys – Turn Blue
The Black Keys have gone psychedelic, experimenting with their bluesy sound in a mysterious, low-key way that doesn’t sacrifice the band’s foot-pounding rockers on “Fever” or Dan Auerbach’s burning guitar solos on “Weight of Love.” Turn Blue is no one’s favorite Black Keys album, but it proves why this duo is such a durable pair.
Some other dope albums, in no particular order: Perfect Pussy, Say Yes to Love; Fucked Up, Glass Boys; The Orwells, Disgraceland; Robert Plant, The Lullaby…And the Ceaseless Roar; Twin Peaks, Wild Onion; Damien Jurado, Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son; Marissa Nadler, July; Tennis, Ritual in Repeat; Counting Crows, Somewhere Under Wonderland
My 30 Favorite Songs of the Year, in no particular order:
- Digital Witness – St. Vincent
- Rattlesnake – St. Vincent
- Prince Johnny – St. Vincent
- Water Fountain – Tune-Yards
- Talking Backwards – Real Estate
- Crime – Real Estate
- Seasons (Waiting on You) – Future Islands
- I’m Not Part of Me – Cloud Nothings
- Psychic Trauma – Cloud Nothings
- White Fire – Angel Olsen
- Enemy – Angel Olsen
- Pray for Newtown – Sun Kil Moon
- I Watched the Film The Song Remains the Same – Sun Kil Moon
- Red Eyes – The War on Drugs
- Under the Pressure – The War on Drugs
- Glory – Wye Oak
- Your Love is Killing Me – Sharon van Etten
- Who Needs You – The Orwells
- Lazaretto – Jack White
- Magic – Coldplay
- Fever – The Black Keys
- Weight of Love – The Black Keys
- Blue Moon – Beck
- Feel – Ty Segall
- It’s Over – Ty Segall
- Do You – Spoon
- My Desire – Interpol
- Go (feat. Blood Diamonds) – Grimes
- Something From Nothing – Foo Fighters
- Rainbow – Robert Plant
The Best Concerts of the Year, in a very particular order (Note: I saw some incredible shows this year, and ranking them was damn near impossible)
- Jack White at the Chicago Theatre
- Arcade Fire at United Center
- St. Vincent at Riviera (also: at Pitchfork and at the Chicago Theatre with Future Islands)
- The Flaming Lips at Riot Fest
- Ty Segall at Thalia Hall
- Paul McCartney at United Center
- Neil Young at the Chicago Theater
- The War on Drugs at Hideout Block Party
- Fucked Up at Bottom Lounge
- Queens of the Stone Age at Aragon Ballroom
- Counting Crows at the Chicago Theatre with Jake Bugg
- Glen Hansard at Lollapalooza
- Tune Yards at The Vic (also: at Pitchfork)
- The Orwells at Lincoln Hall
- Cheap Trick at Arcada Theater
- Cloud Nothings at Pitchfork
- Perfect Pussy at Pitchfork
- Weezer at Riot Fest
- The Black Keys at United Center
- Royal Blood at Lollapalooza