2014 is coming to a close, and that means it’s year-end list-making time! (Woohoo!) First up: my favourite albums.
I listened to quite a bit of music in 2013, but this year, thanks to getting hardcore into Spotify, I listened to more music than ever before: 114 albums, to be exact. Some were mediocre, but most were pretty good, which made narrowing down the list to a top 20 difficult.
For that reason, I’m making my full ranked list of 114 albums available for download. The rankings get pretty arbitrary after 40 or so – does it really matter whether #92, frnkiero andthe cellabration’s Stomachaches, was better than #93, The Flats’ Liberation & The House in Blue? – but I’m pretty happy with how the top quarter of the list turned out.
Before we get started, a few notes:
- No EPs on this list. Only full lengths. Sorry Sucré, It Looks Sad., and Beach Slang.
- Even though I listened to an assload of music this year, that doesn’t mean I listened to everything. If I left your favourite album off my master list, it’s because I haven’t heard it yet. If you think I’d like it, then please recommend it to me!
- You might have seen PUP’s debut album on a lot of year-end lists. I loved it too! Hell, I’ve even been to a PUP show, and I have a PUP t-shirt too. That being said, though their album was released in the States this year, it was released in their home country of Canada back in 2013. Therefore, it doesn’t qualify for this list. Sorry. I still love PUP, though!
- I went out of my way to listen to more female artists this year, and paradoxically, I ended up with fewer female artists in my top 20 than last year. Part of the reason was that I was digging into a lot of back catalogues of female artists who didn’t release full-lengths this year. That being said, I find the severe gender imbalance of my list a little distressing. I’ll have some thoughts on that in an upcoming piece in a couple of weeks.
- I think my top 4 albums this year are stronger than my favourite album last year. (Sorry, The Naked and Famous. I still love you guys!)
Without further ado, here’s the list:
20. Kimbra – The Golden Echo
In retrospect, we should have all expected it after we heard “Come Into My Head,” but it’s still somewhat jarring to hear Kimbra’s transition from old-school jazz to electro-infused R&B. On The Golden Echo, she restyles herself as something like a female Prince, leaping out of the low end of her register into stratospheric vocal histrionics. While there are a few missteps (like the Bilal-featuring “Everlovin’ Ya”), for the most part, Echo is a remarkably assured transformation for Kimbra. She remains in total control of her slick sensuality, even as disco synths and zippy electronics bubble around her in all directions. Confidence is one of the keys to making a great album, and Kimbra has it in spades.
Best tracks: “Carolina”, “Miracle”, “As You Are”.
19. Pianos Become the Teeth – Keep You
Let’s just get this out of the way: Pianos Become the Teeth’s first two albums aren’t very good. You can’t make a good album whose vocals consist of nothing but screaming. You just can’t. With few exceptions – one of which I’ll talk about later on this list – screaming works best in small, strategically-deployed doses. One might think that the band’s decision to use only clean vocals on Keep You is an overcorrection. Now what sets Pianos Become the Teeth apart from other post-hardcore-influenced post-rock acts, like Moving Mountains or Prawn? Not much, to be frank. But seeing as I’m a huge fan of that kind of music, that’s actually a plus for me. Keep You begins where “I’ll Get By”, the closing track on their previous full-length, The Lack Long After, left off. It turns out that vocalist Kyle Durfey is an admirable singer, navigating the band’s new softer side with ease, and letting just a hint of aggression creep into his voice when the music gets heavier. With some great musicianship and immaculate production by the rising Will Yip, Keep You isn’t just a testament to Pianos Become the Teeth’s versatility and ability to forge a new direction; it’s also a fantastic album in its own right.
Best tracks: “Ripple Water Shine”, “Traces”, “Say Nothing”.
18. Aaron West & The Roaring Twenties – We Don’t Have Each Other
Dan “Soupy” Campbell’s star has never been higher. After paying his dues with four pop-punk albums of increasing depth and complexity with his band The Wonder Years, culminating in last year’s fantastic The Greatest Generation, Campbell is now not only a respected member of the punk scene, but also of the wider northeast US music community. Gaining respect provides licence to expand one’s musical horizons, and Campbell did just that this year, dipping his toes into pop rock with a guest spot on Driver Friendly’s “Stand Tall” and releasing a folk/Americana solo album under the moniker of Aaron West & The Roaring Twenties. We Don’t Have Each Other is a concept album about the dissolution of a marriage, full of Campbell’s evocative lyricism. Though its events take place mainly on the East Coast, its sound, full of bright horns and slide guitar, is drenched in the Midwest, giving the album a sort of pan-American vibe. With this album, Campbell cements his place as one of America’s great storytellers.
Best tracks: “Our Apartment”, “You Ain’t No Saint”, “Carolina Coast”.
17. Field Mouse – Hold Still Life
I’m surprised that more bands haven’t taken the ethereal vocals and fuzzed-out guitars of shoegaze and married them to less ambient music with more traditional song structures. Field Mouse does just that on Hold Still Life. Singer/guitarist Rachel Browne does a remarkable job of letting her voice float on top of the music. In opener “A Place You Return To In A Dream,” she’s barely audible in the song’s softer sections, but in the final few seconds, she snarls out the last couple of lines over a meaty guitar crunch. The soft/loud dynamic plays itself out over the course of the entire album, the energy always ebbing and flowing. Some tracks, like the brilliant “Two Ships,” are more contemplative, while others, like the following track, “Everyone But You,” are pure intensity. By the time the wall of distorted sound kicks in in the album’s closer, “Water in the Valley,” you can’t help but have expected it, but it’s satisfying nonetheless.
Best tracks: “A Place You Return To In A Dream”, “Two Ships”, “Water In The Valley”.
16. Cloud Nothings – Here and Nowhere Else
Whether fairly or not, Cloud Nothings gets lumped in with the current emo revival, a label that increasingly seems to apply to any punk-ish music that was influenced by the rock music of 15 to 20 years ago. Regardless of what labels you want to apply to Cloud Nothings, their lo-fi sound and Dylan Baldi’s sincere lyricism set them apart from the rest of the pack. At just eight tracks, Here and Nowhere Else is all lean and no fat, a relentless burst of energy that doesn’t let up until the final note. It’s not quite the triumph that was 2012’s Attack on Memory, but it’s proof positive that Cloud Nothings has staying power in this scene.
Best tracks: “Quieter Today”, “Psychic Trauma”, “I’m Not Part of Me”.
15. K.Flay – Life as a Dog
K.Flay has been circling the indie circuit for years, dropping singles and EPs with regularity. Now she’s finally got her first full-length out, and it’s more or less what I expected: eleven slices of catchy electropop with a tinge of hip hop. K.Flay doesn’t rap as much as on previous efforts, but her personal, self-deprecating lyrics remain intact. Both this album and the previous one on the list, Cloud Nothings’ Here and Nowhere Else, explore mental illness, running around in the depths of the human psyche. But sonically, they couldn’t be more different. Life as a Dog is driven by synthesizers and programmed beats, not distorted guitars and live drums. However, the album adds a bit of a rock edge to K.Flay’s signature sound, especially on opener “Everyone I Know,” as well as on “Fever” and “Thicker Than Dust.” It’s a sign that K.Flay is expanding her sound ever outward, even as her lyrics turn inward.
Best tracks: “Fever”, “Bad Things”, “Thicker Than Dust”.
14. The Lawrence Arms – Metropole
I have only been to Chicago once, about a decade ago, so it’s hard for me to tell how “authentic” The Lawrence Arms’ vision of the city is. But it’s clear that Metropole isn’t lacking in emotional authenticity. As the trio weaves tales of aging in Chicago and watching the city change around them, it’s hard not to feel sorry for The Lawrence Arms. They clearly don’t understand what the kids are into these days. One can imagine they spent the eight years that passed since their last album, Oh! Calcutta!, wondering if it was even worth it to record a new LP. In the end, they decided to make a statement, even if no one was around to hear it: we’re here, this is our city, and this is what we think. Their statement is wrapped up in modal punk rock with a tinge of Midwest Americana, giving the record a sense of wistfulness that perfectly complements its lyrics.
Best tracks: “Beautiful Things”, “Paradise Shitty”, “October Blood”.
13. Shabazz Palaces – Lese Majesty
Just how weird can you get before alienating everyone entirely? Ishmael Butler and Tendai Maraire seem intent on answering that question, pushing rap music in bold, experimental new directions on their sophomore album, Lese Majesty. It’s a different strain of Afrofuturism than what you would hear on say, a Deltron 3030 album. This one is more abstract and arcane, almost impenetrable to even the most attentive listener. If I didn’t know any better and you told me that this was hip hop music brought back in time from the year 2100, I would believe you. It’s never actually clear what Butler is rapping about, but with a sound this hypnotically compelling, does it really matter?
Best tracks: “Forerunner Foray”, “#CAKE”, “Motion Sickness”.
12. Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 2
RUN THEM JEWELS FAST RUN THEM RUN THEM JEWELS FAST RUN THEM RUN THEM R-RUN THEM R-RUN THEM RUN THEM FUCK THE SLOW MO
Profane. Blistering. Ear-splitting. Slap you in face and leave you standing in the cold. There’s nobody in the rap game right now who can pull off the fiery, perfectly-timed interplay that El-P and Killer Mike have. These guys are masters of their craft, and they’re having a shitload of fun doing it too.
Best tracks: “Jeopardy”, “Close Your Eyes (And Count To Fuck)”, “Love Again (Akinyele Back)”.
11. Owl John – Owl John
Scott Hutchison took a break from his regular gig as frontman of Frightened Rabbit this year to release a solo album under the moniker of Owl John. Musically, it’s not a huge departure from Frightened Rabbit’s work, though it does employ more electronic flourishes and pop sensibilities. “Hate Music” uses distorted blues guitars, while “Los Angeles, Be Kind” is driven by synthesizers, and opener “Cold Creeps” has a satisfying percussive stomp. Still, Owl John shines when it doesn’t stray too far from Hutchison’s comfort zone of sad-sack Scottish indie rock. The stellar “Songs About Roses” and “Red Hand” wouldn’t sound out of place on a Frightened Rabbit album, and that’s not a bad thing. Experimentation sometimes yields great music, but often the best music comes from executing the familiar with confidence and aplomb.
Best tracks: “Songs About Roses”, “Los Angeles, Be Kind”, “Red Hand”.
10. Wye Oak – Shriek
Shriek represents a departure from Wye Oak’s usual modus operandi. Gone are the prominent guitar riffs of their previous efforts, replaced with synthesizer lines and flourishes of noise. Singer Jenn Wasner’s warbling voice has never sounded more assured, rising confidently above the album’s dense keyboard arrangements. Sonically, the album covers a lot of ground, from dark alternative rock (“Glory”), to frantic noise (“Paradise”), to retro ’80s pop (“Logic of Color”). Andy Stack’s tight drumming anchors the whole affair, reining the chaos in just when it seems like things are about to get out of hand. Experimentation paid dividends for Wye Oak, and freed from the shackles of traditional, guitar-driven indie rock, there’s no telling where they’ll go next.
Best tracks: “Before”, “Glory”, “Logic of Color”.
9. The Twilight Sad – Nobody Wants to Be Here and Nobody Wants to Leave
The Twilight Sad have the second entry on this list in the “Scottish sad-sack indie rock” category. Their brooding, droning mixture of shoegaze, industrial rock, and post-punk has been refined over the course of four albums and turned into something that’s both arresting and strangely beautiful. Nobody Wants to Be Here and Nobody Wants to Leave sounds like a cold, wintry night spent inside a crumbling factory, huddling around a trash-can fire for warmth. James Graham’s vocals sound distant, like voices swirling around in a snowstorm. There were other albums this year that were more atmospheric, like Whirr’s Sway or Other Mountains’ Mare’s Nest, but none of them had the evocative beauty of The Twilight Sad’s work.
Best tracks: “There’s a Girl in the Corner”, “I Could Give You All That You Don’t Want”, “In Nowheres”.
8. The Menzingers – Rented World
It’s a well-known fact that bands mellow out as they get older. But that doesn’t mean they have to get boring. A band can mature with grace, like The Menzingers do on their fourth record, Rented World. Anybody hoping for another “Alpha Kappa Fall Off a Balcony” is going to be sorely disappointed, but those who were expecting a natural progression from On the Impossible Past will be delighted. Though Rented World isn’t quite as impressive as Past – it’s hard to beat the one-two punch of that album’s title track and “Nice Things” – The Menzingers’ heartland punk sensibilities remain intact on their fourth effort, now accompanied by a wisdom that they didn’t possess in their earlier years. “I Don’t Wanna Be an Asshole Anymore” is practically an apology for youthful indiscretion, while “Hearts Unknown” laments the disorientation that adults feel in an increasingly connected world. Who said growing up had to be uninteresting?
Best tracks: “Where Your Heartache Exists”, “Transient Love”, “Hearts Unknown”.
7. Circa Survive – Descensus
Five albums into their career, Circa Survive shows no signs of slowing down. They’re not interested in doing anything truly revolutionary on Descensus, instead choosing to refine their hybrid experimental/post-hardcore sound with the help of Will Yip, who is quickly becoming the punk scene’s most valuable producer. Whereas their previous effort, Violent Waves, saw the band aiming mainly for the middle of their dynamic range, Yip pushes the band to their extremes. The band is at their most aggressive on “Schema” and “Quiet Down,” both of which feature large amounts of atonal guitar noise, and at their most delicate on “Nesting Dolls” and “Phantom,” the former of which builds over seven minutes into a swirling blizzard of sound. Circa Survive has never been both so brutal and so beautiful.
Best tracks: “Only The Sun”, “Nesting Dolls”, “Sovereign Circle”.
6. Cymbals Eat Guitars – LOSE
Cymbals Eat Guitars’ noisy, shrieking music straddles the lines between indie rock and punk, like a version of Cloud Nothings with keyboards. On their third album, they maintain their trend of writing deceptively sunny songs. The melodies are bright as always, but a closer listen to the words reveals some uncomfortable things. Singer/guitarist Joseph D’Agostino’s lyrics are littered with drug references and allusions to anxiety. It sounds like he could fall apart at any second. Luckily, the band keeps it together for the album’s nine tracks, from bluesy opener “Jackson,” about a visit to an amusement park, through high-speed harmonica-driven stomper “XR” and the classic pop-influenced “Chambers”, all the way to subdued closer “2 Hip Soul.” Beneath its sunny exterior, LOSE is a scary, sinister album whose haunting subject matter is likely to worm its way into your brain and stay with you for a long time.
Best tracks: “Jackson”, “Place Names”, “Chambers”.
5. Say Anything – Hebrews
This is probably going to be the single most divisive album on the list. Even those who didn’t mind it will question how it ended up in the top 5. However, I think Say Anything’s most recent effort is one of the boldest, most unapologetic albums I’ve heard in a long time. Frontman Max Bemis’ desire to record an album without a single electric guitar could have been disastrous, but its lush arrangements of strings, keyboards, and horns prove that it’s possible to rock the fuck out without even a hint of guitar fuzz. Hebrews is actually Say Anything’s heaviest album, with multiple tracks devolving into frenzied screams and squeals. Most of the tracks are located halfway between chamber pop and art punk, with “The Shape of Love to Come” displaying adult contemporary sensibilities and “Boyd” driving straight into hardcore punk. Bemis just doesn’t give a fuck anymore. He has dropped all pretenses of Say Anything being anything more than a moniker for his solo efforts, recruiting members of his wife’s band, Eisley, to play on nearly every one of Hebrews’ tracks. On “Judas Decapitation” and “Lost My Touch,” he even goads his audience to criticize him. It’s an audacious attack on a scene – and let’s face it, a press – that just wants Bemis to go back to getting high and suffering from paranoid delusions. Lashing out against your critics? Shoving your happy marriage in everyone’s face? Giving the finger to electric guitars? I don’t care what anyone says: that’s punk as fuck.
Best tracks: “Six Six Six”, “Kall Me Kubrick”, “A Look”.
4. The Hotelier – Home, Like Noplace Is There
The Hotelier’s sophomore record (their first having been released under the banner of “The Hotel Year”) is so dense, it’s hard to know where to begin. Almost all traces of pop-punk have been leached out of the band’s sound, leaving behind a distorted tornado of ’90s emo revival. The album’s nine tracks are perfectly sequenced, building to a crescendo up through the album’s midpoint in “Among the Wildflowers,” bursting into a wall of yelps before settling in the eye of the storm, a recorded interview with a young boy. But what follows next is the band at its boldest and most impressive. In “Life in Drag,” singer Christian Holden screams for two-and-a-half minutes straight about being abandoned by a friend in his gender-bending pursuits. It’s a moment so frank and honest, it makes every other band on the scene look like a bunch of fake fucks. Without a doubt, Holden is the best lyricist working in rock music today, weaving tales with vivid imagery about helping his friends cope with mental illness. In lesser hands, these tales could seem lurid and distasteful, but Holden is always a compassionate observer, eager to help but at times helpless himself. By wearing their hearts on their sleeves, The Hotelier managed to create the bravest record of the year.
Best tracks: “Your Deep Rest”, “Among the Wildflowers”, “Life in Drag”.
3. Prawn – Kingfisher
Given that sailing is one of singer/guitarist Kyle Burns’s most treasured pastimes, it makes sense that Kingfisher incorporates a lot of nautical imagery. Opener “Scud Running,” with its shimmering, U2-esque guitars and bright, clear horns sounds like a sunny day on the ocean, while closer “Halcyon Days,” with its churning melody and alternating metres, calls to mind a stormy, choppy sea. Producer Gregory Dunn (of Moving Mountains) channels Prawn’s post-rock inclinations into sweeping soundscapes, like on album highlights “Prolonged Exposure” and “Runner’s Body,” but he doesn’t sand off the band’s hooky, indie-rock edge, letting them showcase their pop/punk/emo smarts on “Dialectic Of…” and “Thalassa.” Kingfisher is such an immaculately produced, well-balanced record, it’s hard to believe that this is just the band’s sophomore effort.
Best tracks: “Old Souls”, “Runner’s Body”, “Halcyon Days”.
2. Davenport Cabinet – Damned Renegades
What started as a lark for Coheed and Cambria guitarist Travis Stever has morphed into a full-fledged band, with Stever’s cousin Tyler Klose now handling most of the vocal duties. While most of Coheed’s pop and punk influences come from their singer, Claudio Sanchez, it’s clear that Stever supplies them with their blues and classic rock tones. There are obvious hints of Led Zeppelin on Damned Renegades, an album that harkens back to an earlier time when rock ‘n roll reigned supreme. Its guitars play meaty riffs and virtuosic solos, dancing in call-and-response with the vocals. But Renegades is never self-indulgent. “Bulldozer,” “Students of Disaster,” and the album’s title track display some of the most impressive fretwork of the year, but it never sounds like Stever and Klose are showing off. Instead, they sound like veterans of a long-forgotten scene, busting out their axes for one last go-around.
Best tracks: “Bulldozer”, “Students of Disaster”, “Missing Pieces”.
1. From Indian Lakes – Absent Sounds
With a sound that lies somewhere between folk and post-rock and that incorporates elements of dream pop, math rock, and post-hardcore, Absent Sounds should be a mess. But impressively, it isn’t. Even more impressive, it was recorded almost entirely by one man, Joey Vannucchi. There’s nary a note out of place on the album. Every pluck of a guitar string, every tap of a key, and every hit of a snare drum has a purpose. Absent Sounds has stellar musicianship – tastefully restrained, but never afraid to get technical if need be. Though the record is a more subdued affair than its predecessors – Vannucchi doesn’t scream at all this time or let any hint of grit enter his voice – it still burns with a quiet intensity that finally explodes into one of the most memorable guitar riffs of the year in the final minute-and-a-half of the album’s closing track, “Fog.” It’s a riff that lingers in my brain each time I listen to the album, and it makes me want to immediately put the whole thing on repeat. An all-around fantastic effort that reveals new depths with each listen.
Best tracks: “Come In This Light”, “Ghost”, “Fog”.
Well, that’s the list! I plan to do another entry soon where I talk about my favourite songs of the year. It will give me an opportunity to showcase some bands that I didn’t get to mention here. Let me know what your favourite albums of the year were in the comments down below.