FEATURE: The Top 20 Albums of 2014 – Part One
by Chad Jewett
20.) Owls – Two
Perhaps a bit buried in 2014’s avalanche of post-hardcore comebacks – The Jazz June, Braid, and The Van Pelt all released bangers – Owls’ cranky, opaque, yet very good Two nevertheless remains a highlight of absurdist, indie-rock post-modernism. Tim Kinsella (of Joan or Arc, Cap’n Jazz and roughly thirty other bands) remains a master of non-sequiturs, wordplay, and Dadaist tone poems (listen to “Oh No Don’t…” a couple of times, for instance). And his brother, Mike Kinsella (of Owen, American Football, and roughly thirty other bands) remains equally adept at keeping up, doing some of his best rhythmic work in years by wrangling the album’s many asides, bursts, and sudden peaks and valleys.
19.) The Van Pelt – Imaginary Third
Technically a collection of unreleased songs recorded as a follow-up to the post-hardcore group’s 1997 LP Sultans of Sentiment, Imaginary Third nevertheless only saw the light of day this year. The songs are great, The Van Pelt’s mix of elastic emo and post-rock remains singular, and most importantly, Imaginary Third sounds like it could have been recorded a month ago, so fresh and engaging are songs like “The Threat” and “The Betrayal.” It’s tough to classify exactly what Imaginary Third is – something tells me the band might appreciate the label “alternative history” – but it’s a real pleasure to hear a band as unique and imaginative as The Van Pelt at the height of their powers.
18.) Ryan Adams – Ryan Adams
As sturdy and memorable a collection of songs as we’ve seen in years from the forever-shape-shifting alt-country songwriter, Ryan Adam’s self-titled LP was a spartan set of economical, melody-rich slow-burns. Consisting of little more than scruffy guitar and thick blankets of organ, Ryan Adams recalled some of the moodiness of Love Is Hell and the muscular tunefulness of Rock ‘n Roll. But unlike those records, Adams seemed free of the usual theses, in-jokes, and influence-indebted concept structures that occasionally made even his very best records feel a tad formalist. Instead, songs like the Tom Petty-esque “Gimme Something Good”, the hush, affecting “Kim” and especially the excellent jangle-pop of “Feels Like Fire” (complete with that incredible falsetto post-chorus), operate as energetic examples of Ryan Adams’ gift for casual brilliance.
17.) Little Big League – Tropical Jinx
On Tropical Jinx, Philadelphia emo-indie quartet Little Big League opted for avoiding the sophomore slump by taking a stark left turn from the ecstatic pop brightness of These Are Good People, into something murkier, more anxious, but ultimately just as rewarding. More concerned with texture and mood than shimmering hooks, Tropical Jinx was one of the 2014’s best headphone records – a thick and churning guitar album that repurposed the lovely-yet-opaque squalls of Hüsker Dü and Dinosaur Jr. into a gloaming surface for Michelle Zauner’s poignant narratives of loss, anxiety, and introspection. Yet there remains a very real sense of fun in Little Big League’s aesthetic, as songs like “Dixie Gun” shimmer beneath Zauner’s languid melodies. Certain albums reward time spent digging. Tropical Jinx is one of those records.
16.) Prawn – Kingfisher
Without exception, the best emo and post-hardcore LPs of 2014 were also the most ambitious; and Prawn’s brilliant, magisterial Kingfisher is no exception. The album sounds great – nothing new for a band as attentive to sound and structure as Prawn is – but it also boasts incredible, honest-to-god songs. “First As Tragedy, Second As Farce” features the curling propulsion of Moneen or the most agile spans of The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me, but also leaves plenty of room for Tony Clark’s clever melodies. Elsewhere, “Thalassa” arrives as one of the best songs of the year by filling out the New Jersey band’s surround-sound post-emo with Graceland horns and some of the most precise, thrilling use of quiet-LOUD dynamics we’ve heard in a while, all built around one of Clark’s best, most effortless hooks. Kingfisher found Prawn making one of the year’s most thoughtful pop records without sacrificing one iota of their carefully whittled sound.
15.) Braid – No Coast
Take the album title either way – a celebration of the midwest or a statement of dogged, earnest principles – and it’ll still apply to the excellent, long-awaited comeback LP from Michigan emo godfathers Braid. That the band still manages its careful balance of melody and mathematics is welcome news. That Braid have also added to that sound by doubling down on the compelling dynamic between singers Bob Nanna and Chris Broach, and letting their songs breath and expand, is even better. Take album opener “Bang”, an airy, translucent three minutes that leaves room for both Nanna’s rounded baritone and Broach’s spiky tenor, allowing one to fill out the other. Suddenly there is new balance to what Braid does, a pliant, tuneful middle ground between the brusque angularity of The Age of Octeen and Hey Mercedes’ Every Night Fireworks. The rest of the LP follows suit, making No Coast feel like where Braid would have ended up anyway, fourteen-year gap or not. No Coast just might end up being Braid’s finest achievement.
14.) United Nations – The Next Four Years
Gargantuan and ferocious, sharp yet betwitchingly atmospheric, The Next Four Years, the second LP from punk supergroup United Nations, is about as perfect as a modern hardcore LP gets. The record ranges from the epic grinding of album-opener “Serious Business” (a song whose quick movements bely its elephantine hugeness) to the 80s hardcore sprint of “False Flags” to the early-Refused athleticism of “Music for Changing Parties.” The album’s very real ambitions ultimately serve to amplify the band’s very real sense of joy in its own sharp instincts for a certain brand of monumental, finely wrought punk rock. Few albums offered such a fine balance of the intellectual and the kinetic as The Next Four Years.
13.) Tinashe – Aquarius
2014 was a banner year for smoky, cerebral, finely-crafted alternative R&B. Ranging from the electronic sultriness of FKA Twigs’ LP1 to D’Angelo’s dense, woozy comeback Black Messiah, this was a great twelve months for fans of quirky, artisanal soul. Tinashe’s major-label debut, Aquarius, arrive as one of the very best releases of this wave. Pitched between the cool, atmospheric soul of 1970s Quiet Storm R&B (even the title “Aquarius” feels like it should have been a 1976 Smokey Robinson or Marvin Gaye LP) and state-of-the-art hip-hop production, Tinashe splits the difference with aplomb, managing both marquee singles (the inescapable “2 On”) and avant-garde FM symphonies like the Aaliyah-esque “How Many Times” and album-highlight “Wildfire.” Aquarius boasted eighteen songs and fifty-five minutes of material, and all of it feels essential – a carefully curated tour-de-force of modern soul music.
12.) Owen – Other People’s Songs
Serving as a compulsively re-listenable collection of songs and an object lesson in Mike Kinsella’s gifts as an arranger, Owen’s Other People’s Songs is the (very) rare covers LP that manages to operate as something other than a novelty or a curio. Take Kinsella’s poignant, clever take on Lungfish’s “Descender”, which turns the dense, eccentric post-hardcore of the original into a gorgeous, moving pop song. Or the mix of imagination and instinct that rightly discovers the country song rustling beneath The Promise Ring’s “Forget Me”, or the light touch that offers an alternative history wherein The Smoking Pope’s “Under the Blanket” is somehow a highlight from At Home With Owen. It’s not often that Mike Kinsella’s underrated gift for indie-pop studio-craft and his warm creak of a voice don’t combine to yield something beautiful. Think of Other People’s Songs as further proof.
11.) D’Angelo & the Vanguard – Black Messiah
Voodoo came out fifteen years ago, arriving as one of the best soul LPs in forever and eventually turning into one hell of a statement to follow up for singer-songwriter D’Angelo. The longer that the Virginia native tinkered with his next LP (and worked through personal issues) on the way to his comeback, the more herculean the task appeared. So it figures as one of the signature artistic triumphs of 2014 that Black Messiah arrived as such an excellent, compelling, and yet wholly unique next statement for D’Angelo. Like Kendrick Lamar’s “i”, the album pairs a deeply joyful humanism to a very real political statement of survival and resistance. A dense, rich collection of analog soul, as attentive to texture and groove as it is to hooks and D’Angelo’s elastic voice, Black Messiah rewards time spent in your headphones unlike any other LP this year. There’s real joy in getting lost in the cluttered, rubbery, scuffed-up “1000 Deaths”, or paying close attention to the fine details of the woozy-yet-beautiful “Prayer”, or getting swept up in the easy-going tunefulness of “The Door.” Albums like There’s A Riot Goin’ On and I Want You and Sign o’ the Times come to mind – groundbreaking R&B records that manage to groove and explore galaxies of troubled interiority all at once.