FEATURE: The Top 20 Albums of 2014 – Part Two
by Chad Jewett
(Read Part One here.)
10.) Somos – Temple of Plenty
An expertly crafted expression of progressive politics and sharp, punk melody, Temple of Plenty found Massachusetts quartet Somos bridging the gap between early-2000s Vagrant Records emo and the righteous liberation sounds of golden-era Dischord. Clocking in at twenty-eight minutes, Temple of Plenty is a remarkably assured debut, a finely-honed collection of pop songs defined by Michael Fiorentino’s spry hooks and the band’s nimble twin-guitar attack. Songs like “Dead Wrong” and “Before You Merge” are absolutely air-tight, the product of a band with a confident grip on lean choruses and bright major keys. A consistently compelling and rewarding listen, Somos’ debut full-length managed the tricky art of making a grand statement out of familiar parts.
9.) Taylor Swift – 1989
2014 had no answer for the out-of-nowhere masterpiece that was Beyonce, but Taylor Swift gave it her best shot on the impeccably-produced, exceedingly re-playable 1989. Like Beyonce, 1989 is a marvel of modern studio-craft and killer pop songwriting, balancing big-tent hooks and relatable honesty with a much more personal statement from an artist who we’re still getting to know. Even better, the LP holds together as an album, a single cogent statement from one of modern pop’s smartest figures. 1989 sticks to the Technicolor plastic sounds of its namesake era – post-Tusk Fleetwood Mac, Madonna, Wilson Phillips, Phil Collins – but refuses to settle for the instant gratification of pop retroisms. Instead, with songs like the effervescent “Shake It Off” and the slinky, sparkling “Style”, Taylor Swift re-shaped that synthetic aesthetic to her own purposes, reinventing herself and a whole era of FM pop all at once.
8.) FKA Twigs – LP1
The haunting, daydream highlight of an excellent year for avant-garde R&B, FKA Twig’s full-length debut, simply titled LP1, is a tough album to take off your turntable once it finds it way there – an enchanting, challenging, but truly wonderful collection of songs. A perfect match of voice and production style – FKA Twig’s radiant, flexible alto and a set of spacious, bewitching grooves (Twigs herself helms most of the LP) – LP1 switches from spare, affecting beauty to hard-left studio experimentalism with little warning, making the album one of the most rewarding repeat-listens of the year as songs like “Closer” and “Two Weeks” seem to change and warp into new shapes with each spin. Co-producers like Clam Casino and Devonté Hynes – experts at blending pop instincts with ambient touches – are ideal foils for Twig’s gorgeous voice, adding up to a record of subtle grace and compelling sonic imagination; an album we’ll almost certainly be listening to a decade from now.
7.) The Jazz June – After The Earthquake
Leading up to the release of After The Earthquake, Pennsylvania emo greats The Jazz June boasted a discography of tense, angular, fraught punk music – albums that featured their share of melody, but embedded in the wiry grooves of Fugazi or The White Octave. So the sheer happy surprise of the band returning after a decade’s absence was compounded by the bright, airy, expansiveness of After The Earthquake, an album as wide-open and major-key as 2002’s Better Off Without Air was claustrophobic and anxious. The band’s embrace of power-pop’s light touch extended to the songwriting, which yielded some absolute marvels in the forms of “Edge of Space” and “Ain’t It Strange” – the former a blissful span of astral alt-country, the latter a scruffy, economic two minutes of Doolittle-esque guitar pop. Elsewhere, album opener “Over Underground” pairs echoing riffs and sturdy pared-down strums to stirring effect, all tied together by Andrew Low’s increasingly powerful sense of melody. Rather than worry about abstracts like “legacy” and “signature style”, The Jazz June seemingly just concerned themselves with writing a record; and ending up producing their best LP yet.
6.) Flying Lotus – You’re Dead
Sonic visionary Steven Ellison has long resisted the strictures of genre, lacing his abstract electronic music with the bass-heavy rattle of modern hip-hop, the blissed-out burble of laptop-pop, and the analog crispness of classic soul. On You’re Dead, Ellison’s latest release as Flying Lotus, the producer/song-writer/rapper/post-modernist melted all of his many aesthetics, obsessions, themes, and skills into one giant experimental electro-jazz symphony, exploring philosophical questions of death and the afterlife. Consisting of grand suites cut into bursting mini-songs, You’re Dead skips from the sharp modal grooves of Bitches Brew-era Miles to old-school boom-bap on hyperdrive to molasses-drip woozy ambience, sometimes within the same thirty second spans. Along the way Kendrick Lamar stops in for a quick thesis on metaphysics, Ellison’s ne’er-do-well alter ego Captain Murphy drops a pitch-shifted couple of verses, and the entire forty-minute opus ends up making everything else feel stodgy and old-fashioned by comparison. Weird and hypnotic, brilliant and beguiling, You’re Dead finds Flying Lotus operating on a whole different plane, a post-everything explosion of sound and synapses.
5.) Greys – If Anything
Simply put, If Anything, the debut LP from Canadian post-hardcore quartet Greys, is the best punk album of the year. Angular and explosive, cerebral yet kinetic, the album’s thirty-five minutes is an absolute workout, a crashing, sharp, sinewy tour-de-force of righteously pissed-off post-hardcore. The opening 1-2 burst of “Guy Picciotto” and “Use Your Delusion” is just about peerless in 2014, the thrumming gallop of the former placed perfectly beside the hard, physical stomp of the latter. Hooks come in brilliantly economic form (“Just GO!”, “No one loves you like they say they do!”), as do the songs in general, only breaking the five minute mark on the magisterial spaciousness of album-closer “Lull”, which somehow manages to staple together Hot Snakes and American Football. Elsewhere, Greys offer a magnificently cutting critique of punk sexism (“Chick Singer”) and write the kind of Foo Fighters song you wish Dave Grohl had come up with in the D.C. portion of Sonic Highways (“Pretty Grim”). It’s rare to find a punk record whose energy and sheer sonic force stays interesting after the initial jolt wears off. Greys’ debut full-length is that kind of album.
4.) Shabazz Palaces – Lese Majesty
The best hip-hop album of 2014 might also be the most daringly cerebral. Lese Majesty, the second full-length from Seattle duo Shabazz Palaces (Ishmael Butler and Tendai Maraire) consists of three suites of interlocking mini-songs devoted to philosophy, astrophysics, global politics, and old-school battle-rap bravado in equal measure. As was the case with 2012’s perfect Black Up, Lese Majesty manages to turn all of the intrepid experimentalism, ultra-conceptual lyrics, and rubbery, off-kilter grooves into an absolute blast to listen to, a giddy forty-five minutes of radiant ultra-modernist rap. “Harem Aria” swoons and sizzles on a melting beat, but it also pulls you into its hypnotic inner-logic; “New Black Wave” spends its first minute in woozy, dripping ambience, but eventually morphs into an outer-space version of boom-bap. And lead single “#CAKE” remains one of the best and most beguiling songs of the year, a masterpiece of ancient synthesizers, clanging, wiggly beats, and sharp, clever mini-verses, all set to that odd refrain: “Eating Cake”. There hasn’t been a party-starter this strange or addicting in years. Leave it to Shabazz Palaces to make an album of such formal ambition, sonic exploration, and lyrical brilliance also feel this fun.
3.) St. Vincent – St. Vincent
On St. Vincent, Annie Clark continues one of indie-rock’s longest hit streaks. Keeping the pop instincts of 2012’s excellent Strange Mercy and coating the whole thing with a sharp, dense neon sheen, the ultra-stylish singer-songwriter paired her most confessional narratives yet with some of her most assertively challenging soundscapes, somehow mixing starkly honest inner monologues with out-there sci-fi sonics. While coated with an extra-layer of futurist digital-pop sheen, the album also serves as the best example of Clark’s expansive, imaginative guitar work, as her pliant riffs thread throughout the album. To further underline the sheer brilliance and audacious contradictions of St. Vincent, the LP also features about half-a-dozen potential hits, ranging from the slinky crunch of “Birth In Reverse” to the hook-rich stomp of “Regret” to the jittery electro-pop swoon of “Psychopath.” Look at St. Vincent’s fourth LP from just the right angle and the album could serve as an avant-garde companion to Taylor Swift’s 1989 – the more far-out example in a pair of records devoted to declarations of self and imaginative re-workings of synth-pop aesthetics.
2.) Two Knights – Shut Up
2014 was a red-letter year for emo, and Two Knights offered the genre’s definitive contemporary statement. As welcome and compelling and fun as the year’s takes on the shimmering, coiled aesthetic of American Football, Cap’n Jazz, and Braid could be, no album aspired to the brilliant, mercurial, challenging heights achieved by Shut Up. Simply put, Two Knights debut full-length might end up being one of the signature achievements of this renaissance; it’s certainly modern emo’s most daring, cerebral, and rewarding LP. Taking the tangling mathematics of second-wave midwestern post-hardcore and turning them into something approximating jazz, guitarist Parker Lawson and drummer Miles DeBruin bend, warp, and deconstruct the genre into something beautifully kinetic and devastatingly poignant. Lawson’s vocals frequently turn from confessional coos to sudden painful shouts and back again as the songs similarly edge into high-pop choruses, only to knot back up into abstract expressionism before settling once again into shimmering, pastoral post-rock. Songs like “Leave My Body in Milwaukee” and “Dear God, This Parachute is a Knapsack” are equal parts triumphant and heartbreaking, reaching stirring major-key plateaus that both offset and lend affecting counterpoint to the stark pathos of Lawson’s lyrics. As the more adventurous corners of emo continue to get revitalized and reworked, look to bands like Two Knights whose focus seems squarely set on finding new ideas, rhythms, and directions for old sounds. For its blend of moving narratives and dogged experimentalism, Shut Up is just about peerless.
1.) The Hotelier – Home, Like NoPlace Is There
Home, Like NoPlace Is There, the sophomore full-length from Worcester punk quartet The Hotelier, was released in the early winter of 2014 and stayed vital every minute of the year. It was the rare LP that felt like “the one to beat” from the word go. A gorgeous, sweeping, modern novel of an album, Home nails the tricky balance of a long-form connective concept and salient individual songs, managing a wide-screen picture of suburban malaise while offering excellent individual movements like the thick, cascading pop-punk of “The Scope Of All Of This Rebuilding” and the sharp, tense hardcore of “Life In Drag”. Elsewhere, “Among The Wildflowers” and “Housebroken” arrive as grand opuses themselves, with exquisite melodies and poignant, insightful stories of middle-class confusion and angst. You could listen to Home, Like NoPlace Is There ten times and hear ten different albums. You could spend hours with songs like “In Framing” and “Your Deep Rest” and notice different clever asides in Christian Holden’s narratives, new facets in the band’s dense, flexible blend of emo, melodic punk, and post-grunge. The album likely has a long future ahead of it as one of the definitive statements of the millennial generation, devoted to questions of identity, assertively critiquing structures of inequality, and painstakingly interrogating the locked-in privilege and underlying dread of middle-class suburbia. An album about broken promises and uncertain futures, self-doubt and self-discovery, Home, Like NoPlace Is There isn’t all that removed from the Oz its title refers to: a world unto itself, uncanny in its reflection of everyday life, unsettling in the things it teaches about our lives and the way we live them.