This was kind of a weird year for me, musically. I didn’t find quite as much stuff to buy and love as I have in past years, but the stuff I did buy I really loved. Case in point: I slotted nearly every song from the first 6 records on this list on my annual best of the year” mega playlist. Lots of “all killer no filler” entries, then, which made it tough to pick the actual top 10. And I really didn’t dig into the Future Islands or Perfume Genius albums until the final two weeks of the year, so there’s every chance that I’ll want to revise this list after I’ve digested their genius a bit in 2015.
At any rate, here’s the list:
- The War on Drugs: Lost in the Dream
- Ty Segall: Manipulator
- Warpaint: Warpaint
- Spoon: They Want My Soul
- London Grammar: If You Wait
- Temples: Sun Structures
- Angel Olsen: Burn Your Fire For No Witness
- Swans: To Be Kind
- Real Estate: Atlas
- OBN IIIs: Live in San Francisco
- Future Islands: Singles
- Perfume Genius: Too Bright
- Beck: Morning Phase
- Lykke Li: I Never Learn
- The Juan Maclean: In A Dream
- The Horrors: Luminous
- The Men: Tomorrow’s Hits
- Slimkid3 & DJ Nu-Mark: Slimkid3 & DJ Nu-Mark
- Eagulls: Eagulls
- Sharon Van Etten: Are We There Yet?
- Bob Mould: Beauty & Ruin
As a semi-retired music blogger, I didn’t really afford myself the time to editorialize about each album on this list in detail as I’ve done in past years. The music will have to speak for itself. I have compiled a few stream-of-conscious notes as thoughts sprang to mind while iTunes shuffled its way through the 330+ songs I rated 4- and 5-star worthy over the past 12 months:
- The War on Drugs album totally made me reconsider my apathy toward The Dire Straits and ’80s Springsteen while not actually aping either artist; what a transcendent record, though. You can really hear front man / songwriter Adam Granduciel literally getting swallowed by his period of reclusiveness and anxiety as he made his way back to good mental health with the help of his amazing backing band.
- Ty Segall amped up the budget (for once) on Manipulator, giving him a chance to take his time making a record. The results are clear – the songwriting is sharper and more varied, the playing more polished. The record overall sounds sounds well-produced, but it’s to Segall’s credit that he didn’t abuse his budgets (both money and the time that it bought) to make Manipulator sound over-produced. This is genius at work.
- The Warpaint album was the first one to grab my attention in 2014, and despite its lukewarm critical reaction and backlash from some fans, I found it utterly captivating. I found this somewhat ironic – the band’s first album made it a critical darling, while I found it good but overrated; this one has the opposite stance.
- Spoon made the best record of its career — no mean feat, given that it’s consistently made its best record every time it’s released one. It’s nice to hear the band stretching its sound a bit while retaining its identity.
- London Grammar … OK, this is totally fodder for every episode of Grey’s Anatomy from now until the end of time, destined to join the work of bands like Snow Patrol in the pantheon of good records reduced to mediocrity through altered context. But damn – this British trio had been together just a few months when it cut this record (an amazing accomplishment), and singer Hannah Reid has a set of pipes that we’ll all inevitably regard as “legendary” (regardless of how much Shonda Rimes damage her band’s reputation incurs).
- Angel Olsen totally snuck up on me … “Lights Out” was my way into that album, but “Hi-5,” “High & Wild, and “Windows” really put the hook deep into me. I’m sure lo-fi country is a thing, but Olsen’s record was really my first exposure to music that could loosely fall into that sub-genre. I really love that Olsen sings about emotional damage and loss and longing with a sense of humor and from the perspective of an unwitting but unwavering survivor … shell-shocked, but refusing to capitulate to glamorizing victimization, as so many of her contemporaries do.
- Temples somehow managed to perfectly recreate the sound of Bolan era British glam and psychedelic pop while sounding distinctly like no other band recording today. Every song on this album is a wide screen cinematic confection. Not sure if these dudes have it in them to make an equally compelling follow-up (much less go the distance while maintaining their perfectly coiffed poses), but this was an impressive opening to their first act. I’m bracing myself to be happy with one perfect record.
- Swans … not for novices, not ever. But new audiences are somehow flocking to the band during its prolonged rebirth, propelling it to the greatest success of its interrupted, but now resurgent, lifespan. This is 30 years of rock deconstruction and re-assembly performed by a totally locked-in crew of master craftsmen. Thoroughly intimidating and completely captivating, even as it totally pummels you into submission. I don’t think it’s overstatement to call this M Gira’s magnum opus.
- That Real Estate album might as well be called “Ten Indie Rock Ear Worms.” Those hooks are undeniable. This is a perfect Sunday morning record, relaxed and welcoming and nuturing of a brain that’s not quite ready to face Monday yet.
- The OBN IIIs … I saw them open for Thee Oh Sees in Santa Ana last year, and they knocked the wind out of me. Find another live punk album as impeccably played or recorded, with as much personality, as that one, in any year. Huge credit to the gang at Castleface Records for its TASCAM wizardry on that entire series of live recordings.