Across the Margin reveals the definitive list of the best albums of 2014….
25. Real Estate – Atlas
Back in June, for our Best of 2014 (so far) music review, we wrote that “Real Estate’s latest album Atlas is the band’s most beautiful to date.” Now that we’ve had six months to reflect on that statement, it’s easy to see why we felt this way. From the albums opening note to its final, fading moment of sound, it is Real Estate’s unique brand of uncomplicated expressiveness that allows Atlas to charm its listeners again and again. On Atlas, frontman Michael Courtney’s lyrics are the delicate ganache spread between Real Estate’s successive layers of cakey, sweet-sounding melodies. And as the album unfolds, this confection blends to create those evocative, soaring dreamscapes that make us want to consume slice after slice of this musical delight.
24. Sun Kill Moon – Benji
Benji is an incredible album. It offers a poignant unmasking of the human condition. It’s honest, sad as all hell, disconcerting in its acceptance of man’s fate in death, and altogether beautiful. Undoubtedly, Benji would rank amongst this year’s elite albums, deep in the exclusive confines of the coveted Top Ten, if not for Mark Kozelek’s PR stunts and unrefined antics. This brand of buffoonery is hard to ignore. And it is not because we don’t love The War on Drugs (we do!), or that we don’t appreciate a smattering of good-hearted mischief (that’s kind of our thing). It’s just that we don’t understand how a man capable of such artistry, who weaves raw and candid tales over beautiful and intricate finger-plucked guitar, is also the man who birthed to life “The War on Drugs: Suck My Cock.” It makes little sense. Yet, few albums were as gorgeous or as authentic as Benji. And it is because of this we set aside our differences and sing Benji’s praises.
23. Mac DeMarco – Salad Days
Mac Demarco is an enigma, and that is just the way we like him. Highlighting his eccentric nature, Demarco describes his off-kilter brand of dreamlike pop as “jizz jazz,” and somehow this description feels spot on. On his third full length album, Salad Days, we are treated to a medley of tracks that are not so much of a departure from its predecessor, simply entitled 2, but Demarco’s latest is a far more refined and full-bodied production. Salad Days is an intoxicating album, one that catapults you into a hypnagogic state of euphoria with each ensuing listen. Channeling The Beatles and The Beach Boys during their more experimental eras, Salad Days displays Demarco’s knack for woozy and melodic guitar riffs, paired aptly with funky, magniloquent bass lines. Part prankster, part introspective and tortured soul, Mac DeMarco doesn’t seem the sort of rock star to easily embrace the bright lights of mainstream success. But his cult of fans continually swells with each impressive album release, and with each raunchy and unpredictable live performance.
22. Sharon Van Etten – Are We There
There are albums that are “growers,” ones that take a few listens to absorb and to truly understand. And their are other albums that floor you immediately, offering up their magnificence to the listener from the very first note. This is the type of album that is Are We There, Sharon Van Etten’s fourth studio release and her most magnanimous to date. Are We There is Sharon Van Etten at the height of her ability, an artist in utter control of her voice and an indie-goddess who knows exactly what she has to offer her insatiable legions of fans. Are We There is a trying album, dragging you through a sonic garden of despair while Sharon’s evocative lyrics explore the pain associated with heartbreak and the frustration in trying to find ones place in the world. By the albums conclude, you are overcome with emotion, and wrought with the feeling that you were a part of something enriching, and profoundly meaningful.
21. TV on The Radio – Seeds
Adding to an already astounding discography of rock, TV on the Radio released their fifth album this Fall, entitled Seeds. Arguably, Seeds is TVOTR’s most polished and straight-forward album (with compliments to guitarist Dave Sitek’s prodigious engineering skills), although repeated listens begin to unveil a complex and layered wall of sound, flush with with resonating loops, guitar moans, and synths. Representing a slight shift in aesthetic for a band that continually evolves, Seeds serves as a fitting and touching tribute to the loss of their bassist, Gerard Smith, following their previous album, Nine Types of Light. Confronting this devastating loss head on, TVOTR channel their anguish into an excitable and passionate album that highlights the band’s maturity and boundless adventurousness.
20. Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks – Wig Out at Jagbags
We are at a unique point in the career of Stephen Malkmus. With the release of his sixth solo album, Wig Out at Jagbags, Stephen Malkmus has now released more music with the Jicks than with Pavement. And in doing so, the difference between where Steven is at now, and where he was with Pavement, is becoming more clear. Malkmus’s solo albums are rife with intricate guitar play and complex shifts in rhythm. And this is ever more apparent on Wig Out at Jagbags, an album overflowing with Malkmus’ trademark sardonic wit and audacious guitar odysseys1. Whether shamelessly ripping off The Dead’s “St. Stephen” on “Cinnamon and Lesbians,” or channeling Al Green on “J Smoov,” Wig out at Jagbags is Malkmus at his very best, a telling and bold statement with which we are extremely comfortable in proclaiming.
19. Big K.R.I.T. – Cadalactica
Our introduction to Big K.R.I.T. was when he graced the cover of XXL Magazine’s 2011 Freshman Class Issue. Standing beside the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Mac Miller, YG, Meek Mill, and Lil B, Big K.R.I.T. represented a group of musicians that would be carrying the hip-hop torch moving forward. But Big K.R.I.T. seemed different than his contemporaries. His lyrics were more mindful and enlightened. Where others were talking about the materialistic, Big K.R.I.T. was rhyming about discrimination, spirituality, and self-doubt. Big K.R.I.T.’s first album, 2012s Live From the Underground, was a bit of a disappointment, but the two mixtapes leading-up to its debut, K.R.I.T. Wuz Here and Return of 4eva, were instant classics. With Cadalactica, the artist has found his stride, offering up a highly-conceptual and layered production abounding with detailed storytelling and heartfelt sentiments. Big K.R.I.T. is one of Mississippi’s finest, the pride of Meridian, and this latest release catapults him into a higher plain of creative relevance, making it crystal clear he is one of the best rappers out there doing it.
18. Nothing – Guilty of Everything
The term shoegaze has always been somewhat difficult for us to swallow. This brand of rock, where band members supposedly gaze down upon their shoes while discharging blustering, resonating rhythms, is far more than its labeling bequeths. From the godfathers of shoegaze, My Bloody Valentine, through brilliant bands such as Slowdive and Lush, these rockers have presented us with music that is far beyond this detached and non-confrontational characterization, but rather more in-your-face and absorbing. Symphonizing a bevy of guitar effects with oftentimes indistinguishable vocal melodies that seamlessly blend with the reverberating concentus, so-called shoegaze bands conceive an overpowering wall of sound that unknowingly cuts one to the core. No band in 2014 has come out of this misnomer of a genre better than the Philadelphia-based Nothing. Their debut, Guilty of Everything, is the aggregate of what we desire in this realm. It’s loud, hypnotic, and at times even a little bit aggressive. And it surely is the best shoegaze album released this year.
17. Perfume Genius – Too Bright
Perfume Genius (Mike Hadrea) had one hell of a year. Upon the release of his third album, Too Bright, word spread quickly of the album’s magnificence while critical acclaim was appropriately lavished upon it. Too Bright is a unique flavor, a mysterious and dark harmonic journey that pairs simplistic, yet stirring, melodies with Hadrea’s powerful voice that, like a driving wind, sweeps you up and envelops you. With Portishead’s Adrian Utley and PJ Harvey’s John Parish conspiring on the production, Too Bright is one of 2014’s most surprising, and beautiful albums. Throughout its strange and deeply-layered confines, Hadrea explores topics that so many of us can unfortunately, relate to: isolation, estrangement, and detachment. Too Bright is a perfectly-mixed album whose frantic and strange progressions flow smoothly from start to finish.
16. Future Islands – Singles
We’ve had the pleasure of catching several Future Islands shows this year as they toured in support of their latest album, Singles. During those shows, Future Islands frontman Samuel T. Herring morphed from an unassuming figure decked-out in black pants, untucked button-down and Converse All-stars into a larger-than-life, wild-eyed colossus. A melodious Dr. Jekyll dashing about the stage as if directing an invisible symphony of monsters, all the while pouring out the most primordial corners of his heart to a swaying and fully enamored crowd. Now mind you, Future Islands isn’t a thrash metal band or a hardcore punk slanted musical act. No, they are a mild-mannered synth-pop foursome hailing from Baltimore, Maryland. But it is that intangible energy, that bottled up rage and darkness, that Herring brings to Future Islands latest album Singles. Although Herring’s electrifying aura and powerful stage presence does not translate well to the studio, the very fact that we’ve given you a glimpse into the heart of darkness that he pours into every song should make you want to give Singles more than just a cursory listen.
15. Flying Lotus – You’re Dead!
The first time we laid ears on Flying Lotus’s (real name Stephen Ellison) latest album You’re Dead!, we were instantly transported back in time to our initial introduction to the progressive works of Bill Laswell. Or further back, to our first encounter with Miles Davis and John Coltrane. It is just that progressive of an album. Taking prog-jazz to new heights, You’re Dead! leans hard on Ellison’s jazz interests, at times entirely leaving behind the electronic and hip-hop production that first made his name, but never for too long. With help from Herbie Hancock, Snoop Dogg, Kendrick Lamar, Thundercat, Captain Murphy (FlyLo’s self-appointed alter-ego), Angel Deradoorian, and Niki Randa, the fifth full-length studio release from the Los Angeles born producer is pushing the limits of free jazz2, while lamenting on what you experience when your number is finally up. If what awaits you on the other side is anything like the eccentric and peculiar journey of You’re Dead!, then bring it on!
14. Beck – Morning Phase
Beck’s twelfth album, Morning Phase, has been – to no one’s surprise – nominated for the Grammy’s 2014 Album of the Year. It’s an accolade the album wholly deserves, for its music is steeped in Beck’s unique flavor of melodic gravity that continually draws you inward. But it’s hard to talk about Morning Phase without drifting back to 2002s singer-songwriter styled Sea Change. Both albums are impressive. Both are Beck stepping out from what made him famous: mashing together musical genres to create bold and catchy songs while putting coherently modern spins on classic sounds. Morning Phase features a harmonic palette similar to Sea Change and was recorded with many of the core musicians who gave the album its musical warmth. But if Sea Change was Beck’s emotional inhale, his deep inward breath post-heartbreak, then Morning Phase is the long-held exhale. The twelve-year breath pushed back into the world with as straightforward and pleasing a melodic delivery as possible.
13. The New Pornagraphers – Brill Bruisers
It’s not fair. When the New Pornagrpahers convene to record another album, it is akin to an All-Star team reuniting. Similar to the 1992 Dream Team’s assemblage. Joining Carl Newman (A.C. Newman) are Dan Bejar (Destroyer!), Todd Fancey (Fancey), Kathryn Calder (Immaculate Machine), and Neko fucking Case! (It’s just Neko Case of course, but we got excited!). With this sort of talent it seems likely that each and every time The New Pornagraphers work together what results is magical. And this is surely the case with Brill Bruisers, a loud and boisterous conglomeration of noise that is both joyous and mangled. While many a supergroup throughout the years has felt incohesive and unbefitting of the sum of their parts, The New Pornagraphers have always sounded like a polished band, in spite of the fact that they strive to incorporate elaborate instrumentals with the divergent voices of its multitude of lead singers. Since their 2005 masterwork Twin Cinema, we have been waiting for The New Pornagraphers to drop another classic on us, and with Brill Bruisers we have it, a massive wave of indie power-pop that topples you over while leaving you feeling altogether alive.
12. Caribou – Our Love
One can credit the birth of their child with influencing all manner of things. Caribou’s brilliant new album, Our Love, was heavily inspired by the changes to performer Dan Snaith’s daily rhythms as he adjusted to helping raise his now three year old daughter. Where his previous albums Swim, Andorra and the exceptional Milk of Human Kindness were recorded by Snaith in a mode he described as “disappearing into a wormhole” as he worked on his music eighteen hours a day, his latest had to be written in-between trips to the park and feedings, naps and playtime. This start-and-stop approach to Snaith’s music was in direct opposition to his former hermit-like mentality when creating his art. And to our benefit, this change has had the added effect of causing Snaith to become more focused on his life, the life of those around him, and the interactions that this focus breeds. And with this focus has come a realization that there is music to be found in these situations, these simplistic interactions. Remarkable music. Music that celebrates the connections between all of us as it tries to manifest that intangible we call Love.
11. Damien Rice – My Favourite Faded Fantasy
Making up for lost time, Damien Rice returns from a period of hermetic isolation with the most affecting album of 2014. Like his previous two releases, O and 9, My Favourite Faded Fantasy is raw, intimate, and downright heart-breaking. But the difference here is that the album is more assertive, more bold, and more complete, due no doubt to the immaculate production by the legend himself, Rick Rubin. Remaining every bit as visceral, Damien Rice’s latest production lives up to the legacy of his previous work, while turning over a new page in Rice’s travelings, one where he has finally found himself in balance, existing in equal part hurt and hopeful. If Damien Rice were to disappear for another eight years he would be forgiven, if and only if, he returned with an album as beautifully moving as My Favourite Faded Fantasy.
10. Freddie Gibbs & Madlib – Piñata
First it was a slew of rumors, hints and allusions to the fact that Gary, Indiana gangsta rapper Freddie Gibbs was working on an album with the prolific California-based producer Madlib (The collaboration of the two is affectionately termed MadGibbs). Soon enough though, a bevy of tracks displaying the fruits of the duo’s labor were released. In 2011 “Thuggin” was dropped, in 2012 it was “Shame,” and then in early 2014 “Deeper” was released, all incredible tracks suggesting that Piñata, which was released in March of this year, would be all that and then some. True to all the hype, this unlikely collaboration was responsible for one of the better hip-hop albums to be released in recent years, as Freddie Gibbs’s unique brand of gangster rap slid seamlessly over Madlib’s ’70s soul samples. Piñata was produced entirely by Madlib, and although Freddie Gibbs handles the majority of the lyricism, the duo came loaded with back-up as the 17-track LP features contributions from rappers Raekwon, Earl Sweatshirt, Danny Brown, Domo Genesis, Scarface, BJ the Chicago Kid, Ab-Soul, Casey Veggies, Meechy Darko, Mac Miller, and many more, making Piñata as much a musical event as it is a spectacular album.
9. Phantogram – Voices
Recorded in Los Angeles with M.I.A/Santigold producer John Hill, Phantogram’s latest album, Voices, has that booming feel of a 90s-era blockbuster. A major record label production born under the mantra of “money is no object,” Voices is loud. It’s powerful. The album gets right to the point, opening with “Nothing But Trouble,” a classic example of Phantograms secret to success, where femme fatale Sarah Barthel pointedly sings, “Ever have the feeling that you’re constantly dreaming?” It’s an excellent question, and one that’s revisited in many ways throughout Voices. Diving next into the power ballad “Blackout Days,” where Barthel’s ghostly voice uncomfortably laments “I’m hearing voices all the time, they’re in my mind,” with an apocalyptic wall of thunderous drum beats, snares and trip-hop rhythms exploding all around the songs climactic end, only further adds to the albums growing potential. It’s Phantogram trying something new. And big. And they own it. “Fall in Love,” an arena-crushing ditty orbiting around a buzzing, droning tone that bleeds an uneasiness into the song’s catchy hook, is by far the album’s highlight, but not its only star. Voices is an album bound by its expression of inner strife. By its psychosis and uneasiness with the greater world. And that’s just in the albums first three songs! If you can make it past those, we assure you that the rest of the ride is just as – if not more – thrilling to behold.
8. alt-J – This Is All Yours
2012s An Awesome Wave opened our eyes to an indie act from England formerly known as ∆. alt-J is a band whose music sounded so effortless, so fluid and polished, that we considered that their impressive first album could somehow be a fluke. Too good too be true. Yet with the release of one of this year’s most unique albums, This is All Yours, confirmation of alt-J’s prominence is now within our grasp. Rife with precious moments of introspection, and interspersed with mid-tempo and a-cappella numbers binding the more aggressive and cutting eruptions together, This is All Yours is loaded, and even complicated at times, but always sinuous and prolific. The band’s unusual sound is said to originate from their early days at Leeds University, where noise had to be kept to a minimum, forcing the omission of bass guitars and drums. This fortuitous situation is the foundation that alt-J’s sonic choruses are built upon. The album title seems to suggest that what alt-J is bequeathing us with is a divergent collection, a smoothly-efficient folk-noir journey that cultivates our intrigue while their fan base swells.
7. Parquet Courts – Sunbathing Animal
For a few years now, the buzz surrounding Parquet Courts has been strong like bull. Following the release of 2013s Light Up Gold, Parquet Courts inhabited every New Artist to Watch Out For lists we happened upon. Presently, the band is enjoying an entirely different moment in time, one in which the release of the stunning Sunbathing Animal has solidified the fact that they have fully arrived, and are now one of rock’s most well-established and exciting acts. The “post-punk” label feels adequate for this group, but it is getting increasingly difficult to place Parquet Courts into an easily defined box, as Sunbathing Animals is comprised of many short and sweet jarring punk rock tracks, as well as more expansive and experimental campaigns of sound. Oftentimes spasmodic, and all the better for it, Sunbathing Animals represents the coming of age for this young Brooklyn-based quartet, and hopefully it’s the album that finally suppresses the incessant comparisons to Pavement.
6. Woods – With Light and Love
“Look out, it’s upon you. It’s a shepherd for your sorrow.” Such begins the golden, opening track to Woods latest, the inquisitive and fidelity upgraded album With Light and With Love. Joining the ranks of other lo-fi acts who have put out solid studio albums in 2014 (Future Islands, The Men’s), Woods has distinguished themselves from the rest of this pack by the fact that the quartet, backed by Jeremy Earl’s distinctively soaring voice, know how to consistently write a memorable song. The ten tight tracks that make up With Light and With Love’s meandering sound are about as satisfying to behold as a day spent in carefree enjoyment of a warm summer day. This isn’t to suggest that With Light and With Love is an album not to be taken seriously, because if Woods have learned anything over the last seven albums, it’s that their slantings towards jam band acts such as the Grateful Dead, and the lo-fi sounds of the 90s have earned them legions of adoring fans. What makes With Light and With Love so special to behold is that it never takes itself too seriously, choosing to dip its toes in the waters of inward reflection and the uncertainty of self without giving the listener too heavy an existential dose. Some may argue that for a band as accomplished and prolific as Woods, this is simply not enough to be considered great. But as someone who appreciates a break from the tendency for bands to constantly “one-up” themselves, it’s nice to know that a band like Woods is okay (and successful!) by simply staying where they are.
5. Spoon – They Want My Soul
Describing Spoon as one of the more underappreciated bands in rock might not jive well with most, as Spoon has consistently been showered with praise and admiration upon the release of each and every album. Yet, we still feel that one of rock’s greatest modern acts hasn’t gotten its just due. Maybe we are wrong. But we dare you to tell us that after taking a spin through Spoon’s latest release, They Want My Soul. Spoon’s eighth studio album is Spoon in all their glory, a band who while in their prime continually seek out new environments in which to dwell. “Outlier” and “Inside Out” both act as departures of sorts, built upon a sonic, and trancelike landscape where Spoon display a broadening of scopes and ability. From “Rent I Pay” to “New York Kiss,” there isn’t a single misstep on the album, not a track to be trifled with. It’s a modern classic that doesn’t lose a wink of its appeal, even after countless listens. Trust us, we’ve tried.
4. St. Vincent – St. Vincent
When St.Vincent (Annie Clark) released her fourth studio album this past February, we were convinced that there wouldn’t be an album the remainder of the year that would hold a candle to its grandeur. While this premise failed to hold serve, undoubtedly Annie Clark dropped one of the most impressive albums of the year. If rock n’ roll were to anoint a Queen, Clark would be an ideal selection, and we can easily envision her poised and radiant upon her throne, as seen on the cover of her first solo album in three years, the self-titled St. Vincent. St. Vincent3 is infatuated with the idea of new beginnings and is rife with imagery of symbolic snakes in gardens and modern day pinocchios. This new start she may be referring to is her newfangled dynamism and the obvious truth that her best days are in front of her. Annie Clark wields an axe with ferocity, but it is her voice which defines her music, the illustrious, stirring sail which guides her poignant songs through their clamorous mutations. Throughout the fluctuations of tension and impassioned storytelling that is St. Vincent, we are led through a cerebral marvel of an album, one where guitar mayhem and synth electro beats exists in perfect harmony. Long live the Queen!
3. Run The Jewels – Run The Jewels 2
It was at this exact time last year, when we sharpened our pencils, gathered our notes (and headphones) and sat down to analyze 2013s finest albums, where we appropriately shined a light on the Killer Mike and El-P collaboration Run the Jewels. Last year, this unlikely duo took hip-hop and the music world by storm, and this year they have done it again. Run the Jewels 2 is as mean and aggressive as its predecessor and like the original, RTJ2 glides seamlessly from beginning to end, featuring an assortment of calamitous shit-talking set to some of the finest beats El-P has ever produced. Like this year’s album, the original Run the Jewels finished third on our Year’s Best countdown, and we will surely be holding that spot open for next year, in the hopes that Mike and Jaime Run the Jewels once again.
2. Ty Segall – Manipulator
Ty Segall might possibly be the hardest working man in the music industry not named Questlove. But on his latest release, Manipulator, his eighth in just seven years, Segall takes that work ethic to the extreme, recording almost everything on this massive double album himself. Conjuring up a vast command of every track through mighty, anthemic choruses, Segall turns his unusual howl of a voice into a robust glam-rock falsetto and in doing so treats his fans to one of the finer rock albums of all time. The twenty seven-year-old phenom of the San Francisco garage-rock scene presents in Manipulator a series of songs with catchy, uplifting hooks. But this is only where the fun begins. Like a fuse lit as a song commences, the compositions determinedly burn to fiery crescendos, shrewdly engineered climatic explosions that take your breath away. Clocking in at nearly an hour of music, Manipulator barrels through seventeen tracks, some acoustic and others towering effect-pedal behemoths, and each one is engaging and laudable. A nearly perfect album from a man who is undoubtedly back in the studio working on topping this album’s magnificence. That’s a lofty feat, but if anyone is up for the task, it’s him.
Essential Tracks: “The Singer,” “Feel,” and “Stick Around.”
1. The War On Drugs – Lost in the Dream
The more we play The War on Drugs third album, Lost in the Dream, the more we wear-out the needle on our beloved record player. As frontman Adam Granduciel’s harmonious realization that he is only now discovering the problems in his life has spun ‘round our turntable, it has become widely apparent to us that the suffering he has experienced is the sprawling, euphoric magic that makes this album come to life. The majority of Lost in the Dream’s songs are a slow build-up to what can only be described as a wondrous celebration of one man’s heartache. Where music often tries to understand the object of one’s persecution, and in doing so find acceptance and a way to move forward, the songs on Lost in the Dream merely function to illuminate the heartache and hurt with which Granduciel has wrestled. With song titles like “Suffering, “Burning” and “Disappearing” haunting the albums tracks, one gets the sense that Granduciel’s struggles were no minor affair. But all this talk of anguish and heartache is not meant to imply that Lost in the Dream is too dark or too moody to truly appreciate. In fact, it is quite the opposite. For it is in Granduciel’s bold quest to understand the root of his troubles, that he has uncovered the communal celebration that can be found in one man’s sorrow. And it is because of this album’s slow-burn, and its subtle chord changes that can take a song like “Red Eyes” and blow off its doors, morphing into a song that is absolutely devastating in the most beautiful of ways, that Lost in the Dream is Across the Margins pick for best album of the year. Or perhaps…of the decade.
- “Wig Out at Jagbags is inspired by Cologne, Germany, Mark Von Schlegell, Rosemarie Trockel, Von Spar and Jan Lankisch, Can and Gas; Stephen-Malkmus-imagined Weezer/Chili Peppers, Sic Alps, UVA in the late 80’s, NYRB, Aroma Charlottenburg, inactivity, Jamming, Indie guys trying to sound Memphis, Flipper, Pete Townshend, Pavement, The Joggers, The NBA and home life in the 2010’s…” – Stephen Malkmus [↩]
- Ellison, it is worth noting, is the great-nephew of Alice Coltrane. [↩]
- “I was reading Miles Davis’ autobiography, and he talks about how the hardest thing for any musician to do is to sound like himself … and that’s why I decided to self-title this record because I feel like I sound like myself.” – St. Vincent on why her album is self-titled. [↩]