FEATURE: The Best EPs of 2014
by Chad Jewett
10.) The Pains of Being Pure At Heart
Released as an appendix to the band’s ultra-likable third LP, Days of Abandon, Abandonment Issue is the rare set of bonuses-and-leftovers able to stand on its own. That is largely thanks to the bright, sugary “Poison Touch” – a spirited four minutes that manages to distil “Close To Me”-era Cure, vintage Motown soul, and just the right amount of bubbling digital percussion into a high-pop marvel. Elsewhere, an alternate take on album-highlight “Kelly” replaces the original’s glam strut with a more pastoral, hush rendition, another example of The Pains of Being Pure At Heart grabbing the opportunity to expand an already great LP and making it count.
Make Room For Waves
Sharp and tense, moody and oblique, Husbandry’s four song Make Room For Waves offers twenty minutes of dense punk that never stops churning. On EP-highlight “Sentient”, which pivots from thick Jawbox-esque sprawl to sidewinding riffs reminiscent of Hot Snakes, singer Carina Zachary demands “Who’s accountable?” – a devastatingly apt question for a year defined by nightmarish unaccountability. Husbandry recall a golden era of taut, confrontational post-hardcore, but make all of those echoes feel palpably, hair-raisingly alive.
8.) For Everest
No Jazz Rock
Some bands treat EPs as an opportunity to work their way through a singular idea or sound, offering a quick, whittled statement. Others use the format to stretch out, testing different moods and aesthetics to see what works. No Jazz Rock, the debut EP from New York emo quintet, is firmly in the latter camp. The twenty-minute record moves through ethereal ambience (“SQUAD”), thickly jangling indie-rock (“You Will Never Go To Spain”), and warmly spacious guitar-pop (album highlight “Wax Houses”), with a firm, bright grip on each. The EP has more energy than it knows what to do with and more ideas than it has time for – two problems that look a lot like virtues and early promise.
Defined by the sort of sweeping, dense post-hardcore that has seemingly gone missing for years, Frontier(s) offered a remarkably confident statement of purpose in White Lights. “Higher Hills” has the magisterial scope and wide-screen hooks of Rival Schools while “Bare Hands” works the tension and release one might associate with Jawbox or Shudder to Think. But if White Lights is immediately likable for its grasp on past sounds, the EP has remained compelling for Frontier(s)’ gifts for dynamics and songcraft, for the measured precision of its pretty flawless twenty minutes.
6.) Beach Slang
Who Would Ever Want Anything So Broken?
On the first of two great EPs that the band would release in 2014, Philadelphia trio Beach Slang would tap into the wooly, poetic energy of Lifetime and Jawbreaker. Yet the band’s obvious affection for a certain era of melodic punk never calcified into rote retroism. Instead, Who Would Ever Want Anything So Broken? dug up new modes for old sounds by emphasizing the bleary-eyed energy of punk rock youth and the warm memories of punk rock middle age. Songs like “Filthy Luck” and “Get Lost” excel by giving a familiar aesthetic fresh legs, focusing on the specifics inside the universal — “The kids are still alright.”
5.) Brave Bird
T-Minus Grand Gesture
By all accounts a swan song from the Michigan emo quartet, T-Minus Grand Gesture is also an excellent short album, a twenty-five minute EP that built upon the moody, cerebral greatness of the band’s 2012 full length by pushing their musical imagination to new places. This meant trying out a delicate, ornate slowcore on “Rekindle”, or flashing through fleet, alt-country twang on “Hard Enough”. Elsewhere, “Macaroni Time” sets a land-speed record for the band as it sprints through two minutes of tangled-up emo-pop. Those more kinetic moments are bookended by the rich, contemplative “I Don’t Wanna Know” and “Killer Velocity” songs that underlined just how unique Brave Bird’s place in contemporary emo was, and how sorely they’ll be missed.
4.) Beach Slang
Cheap Thrills On A Dead End Street
Call it the Tim to Who Would Ever Want’s Let It Be, the Jersey’s Best Dancer’s to Beach Slang’s Hello Bastards of a debut. The point being that the Philly band added heft, space, and atmosphere to their sound on Cheap Thrills On A Dead End Street, the band’s second EP of 2014 and the better collection of songs (though it was a photo finish). “Dirty Cigarettes” benefits from sounding wider, richer, and moodier while “We Are Nothing” pushes the band’s minimalism to a scruffy absolute with a distorted acoustic guitar and singer James Alex’s worn, conversational voice. And on “All Fuzzed Out”, the band reaches a new apotheosis for their bruised punk romanticism: “And all of these sounds are really just my heart plugged in and played loud.” Cheap Thrills On A Dead End Street advances Beach Slang’s charming aesthetic by matching their earnestness with newfound subtlety.
3.) The World Is A Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid To Die
Though characterized by the band as more of a one-off collaboration (with poet and activist Chris Zizzamia) than a permanent “new direction”, Between Bodies nevertheless found the Connecticut indie band finding more room for texture, mood, and experimentation. The EP also gave us our first real glimpse of the band as led by singer-songwriter David Bello, whose crisp, twangy tenor lent stirring counterpoint to Zizzamia’s narratives on the magisterial waltz of “Space Explorations To Solve Earthly Crises”. Elsewhere, both Zizzamia and Bello got a turn leading the band at their most spryly energetic, on the charging pop punk of “If And When I Die” and the slow-building “Thanks” (which features excellent vocals and synthesizer from Katie Dvorak-Shanholtzer). The innovations of Between Bodies might be specific to the EP, but The World Is A Beautiful Place’s sonic imagination continues to flourish.
Following a string of great mixtapes, New York rapper Le1f seized the day on Hey, his XL Recordings debut, with precise production and hook-heavy bars. “Wut” pairs scronky synth trumpets and a jittery beat to verses that range from syrupy slow-motion to rapid-fire syllables with each new line. The EP’s title track is all echoes and abstract keyboard noise, an ideal setting for Le1f’s canny whisper. But the album’s real highlight is the bursting, kinetic “Boom”, a rubbery three minutes of avant-rap groove over which Le1f lays his signature flexible flow, an irrepressible party-starter that doubles as state-of-the-art hip-hop sound design.
1.) Vince Staples
Hell Can Wait
Marked by tight, casually brilliant verses and gritty-yet-finely-wrought production, Vince Staples Hell Can Wait is a tour-de-force of modern hip-hop, a short album of lean perfection and absolute confidence. EP-opener “Fire” borrows some of the eerie, haunted-house bass wobble of Yeezus and an absolutely massive, fuzzed-out drum track and pairs it with Staples always-in-pocket flow, who manages to be even sharper than the excellent beat that bursts beneath him. Elsewhere, “Hands Up” has become sadly definitive of 2014, a song about police brutality and systemic racism that is starkly relevant in light of the god-awful grand jury decisions in the Eric Garner and Michael Brown cases. As Vince Staples puts it: ““Raiding homes without a warrant, shooting first without a warning / And they expect respect and non-violence / I refuse the right to be silent.” No record this year spoke with more incisive authority on the nature of inequality in America.