Tuesday, December 23, 2014

My Favorite Albums of 2014

2014 was an year with an overwhelming amount of good music, but getting down to it, and thinking of the albums I truly devoured this year, it feels like I’m forcing it a bit. I started with 30, then 25, then down to 20. Now it’s down to 15 and I’m thinking, “Do I really need to put those extra five records on a list is constructed purely for my own personal enjoyment? This isn’t Pitchfork or Rolling Stone, but a survey of one nerd’s habits. In putting together this list I realize how set in my ways I am, and how that is never going to change. All I did this year was watch the baby, not sleep, work, and drive. That’s it. Pete Holmes’ “You Made it Weird” podcast replaced music in the car, and I don’t know where I found the time to listen to records. Some of the quieter ones I listened to when I was staying up all night and Rosie was sleeping on my chest, but most of these I squeezed in when I was doing the morning deposit at work or whatever.

2014 was a year where it was easy to make a Best Of list and hard to make a My Favorite list. There was a great amount of innovation to be had this past year, but then, when isn’t there great innovation? We got to see artists take their crafts to new heights (St. Vincent, Angel Olsen, Owen Pallett, Mac DeMarco) and workmanlike lifers contribute rock solid records to their already rock solid catalogues (TV on the Radio, Fucked Up. I listened to way more rap than I have ever listened to, but entirely shunned anything remotely electronic. It was a year of listening to great songs, sneaking them in whenever I had a free moment (of which there were very few). I spent more time listening to Crooked Fingers’ complete discography than any one record this year. And now the list feels exhausted at this point, as these are the fifteen albums I listened to the most, pretty much in order. And I just cut it down to Top 10 because that feels right.

Despite only listing ten albums, I gushed over many, many more that made the Best of 2014 tag. Tons of good stuff this year, but then again, there's tons of good stuff every year. 

10. Open Mike Eagle – Dark Comedy
So much wit. So much wisdom. Open Mike Eagle’s gift is sharing a worldview that very much lines up with this album’s title. It never feels like joke rap, even when he enlists a professional comedian (Hannibal Burress) on one of the album’s best tracks (“Doug Stamper (Advice Raps)”).

9. Cloud Nothings – Here and Nowhere Else
Goddamn it’s wonderful to hear a band with such an affinity for pummeling its audience with guitars. Dylan Baldi’s best record to date (because of course, as his back catalog is nothing but great records smothered by greater record) does an excellent job of never letting you off the hook. It’s impossible to skip a track, and at 30 minutes it’s nothing but pure, unfiltered indie rock played at blistering volume. Lines are repeated over and over and while I usually give shit to bands content to repeat chorus after chorus to make a mainstream radio single five minutes long, Baldi finds a way to use repetition as a way of ramping up intensity.

8. Angel Olsen – Burn Your Fire for No Witness
Burn Your Fire for No Witness plays like a bonfire at 4am. Everyone has either gone home, or they’re all still sitting there getting high or drinking or smoking cigarettes, maybe occasionally looking over at the fire and being surprised that it’s still burning. It’s a smoldering record. There’s really no better word for it. Full of white hot intensity that sneaks up on you, listen after listen, firmly affixing itself as a staple in your go-to records for years to come.

7. Frontier Ruckus – Sitcom Afterlife
Not content to rest on their laurels after releasing last year’s sprawling epic Eternity of Dimming, Matthew Milia and crew return with a terrific follow up no one asked them to deliver on such a short turn around. And by no one, I mean HOW DOES NO ONE KNOW ABOUT THIS BAND?! It baffles my mind. Even on short rest, Frontier Ruckus found a way to push their sound into new, poppier terrain and maintain the standard of quality in the magnificently detailed songwriting that is right up there with the John Darnielles and the John K Samsons of the world.

6. Sturgill Simpson – Metamodern Sounds in Country Music
I don’t know if there’s a better example of an artist coming to grips with his craft than Sturgill Simpson’s sophomore album. It’s an outlaw country record displaced from time. Some of it is straightforward (“Life of Sin” and “Living the Dream”), some of it is out there (“Turtles All the Way Down”) and some of it is savant (Simpson’s cover of When in Rome’s “The Promise” breaks the song in half, turns it into this song that slow burns and slow burns and slow burns until he cracks it right open at the very end and it’s one of my favorite musical moments of the year). It’s a record for everyone who says they listen to “anything but country” (and if they aren’t believers after this one, then fuck those people, because Sturgill Simpson is the real goddamn deal).

5. Cymbals Eat Guitars – LOSE
Cymbals Eat Guitars third album is erratic in the best possible sense. You can glean the whole scope of the universe CEG have crafted in the lovely, epic opener “Jackson,” which drifts from a dialed-back slow-burner to a big, clattering cacophony to wailing guitar solo over six minutes. It’s a mighty hook, and the rest of the album manages to slip around the entire spectrum of indie rock while keeping its claws firmly implanted in your person. It’s an unassuming classic, and my favorite pleasant surprise in a year of pleasant surprises.

4. Cheap Girls – Famous Graves
Famous Graves is immediately satisfying. It’s a record so good the bonus track would have been a lesser band’s lead single. There were more innovative albums released this year, but none of those albums were my car stereo’s designated hitter i.e. the album I love so much I burn to a CD-R and flip to whenever I don’t want to put on a podcast. It’s a great honor; it really is, in my little car world. As a result, I listened to Famous Graves an insane amount of times considering this was a year when I had so little time to listen to albums all the way through. The album is a reminder that not everything has to blow your dick off to be great.

3. Sun Kil Moon – Benji
Despite its depressing nature (not one, but two of Kozalek’s relatives die via exploding aerosol cans in front lawn garbage fires), Benji is firmly associated with the sweetest time of my life. I got a month of paid paternity leave when Rosie was born, and I spent a lot of that time staying up til 6AM with her sleeping soundly on my chest. It was the only way. To pass the time, I played FTL on the iPad and listened to the quietest music I could find so as to not wake the baby. I would listen to Benji at least twice a night, and each and every time I found something new to love. It’s nothing but heartbreak (with a little levity in the end with “Ben’s My Friend”) but through all that pain there’s a record that feels like a living, breathing representation of the human condition.

2. The Hotelier – Home, Like Noplace is There
This is album stayed on my iPhone (in its entirety) the longest this year. It became a go to when I wanted the capital A Album experience. It’s a big, emo-fueled (in the best way) concept album about loss and heartbreak and putting everything back together again. It’s an album made up of a series of intense moments. Of dramatic vocal turns, big builds, bigger drum crashes, and straight-outta-the-diary heart-on-sleeve confessional lyrics that are so sincere you almost feel uncomfortable looking that deeply into someone’s soul.

1. Andrew Jackson Jihad – Christmas Island
When it comes down to it, the most important trait a songwriter can have is conviction. Sure, there were a lot more beautifully arranged and technically competent records released in 2014, but Sean Bonnette is like the football player who, while not as physically built for the game as other players, makes up for it in heart and determination. During the album’s most heartwrenching and outwardly gorgeous track—“Linda Ronstadt”—Bonnette sings “I think I like my pretty pretty ugly,” and I keep coming back to that sentiment every time I listen to this record. It sounds like it was recorded in a dumpster, it is frequently ugly sounding and raw and rough, and it is the most exciting, emotionally satisfying, and soulful record I had the privilege of listening to this year.

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