2014 was a great year for new music, but what really defined it for me is how many really, really good albums there were. I don’t mean stone cold classics or truly great albums (of which there were a few), but those that were of a level that would normally make up numbers 11-20 in your end of year list. Records that you’ll continue to play for years to come and can often mean more to you than your top ten as they haven’t supersaturated your ears by being played everywhere.
It’s the abundance of these ‘8 out of 10’ records that have made compiling this list so difficult and led to its idiosyncratic length. I listened to 450+ new albums in 2014, and got it down to a long list of 60 records jostling for a third as many places. Records that were near the bottom one day moved way up the next and vice versa. An arbitrary cut off point didn’t make sense this year, because ultimately it should always be about the music and not the list. If this offends your sensibilities, you can skip the first 17 tracks and just take the top 20.
Having said all that, looking at the list, I see that it’s a lot less diverse than my listening habits in 2014, but the best singles artists aren’t always the best album artists. Finally, I’ll just mention that I had to disqualify one of my favourite records for being a compilation of previously released EPs (The Drink’s fantastic Company) a fate shared in previous years by Courtney Barnett (A Sea of Split Peas, 2013) and The Beta Band (The Three EPs, 1998). Because you have to stick to some rules.
37. Warpaint Warpaint
All female post-punk and art rock influenced LA band. A great successor to 2010’s The Fool and their first with drummer Stella Mozgawa, who works brilliantly with bass player Jenny Lee Lindberg to weave the sinuous rhythms that are key to the appeal of songs that are often built around atmosphere and texture rather than melody. You can hear echoes of Radiohead, The Cure and early Siouxsie and The Banshees amongst others.
Recommended tracks: ‘Keep It Healthy’, ‘CC’, ‘Love Is To Die’.
36. Real Estate Atlas
Third album of superior dreamy, jangling indie pop from the New Jersey band. It’s almost the nature of this kind of music that it will struggle to compete with something more in your face and while it might not quite hit the heights of last album Days (2011) but it would be hard to find a record more suited to those lazy summer days.
Recommended tracks: ‘Talking Backwards’, ‘Primitive’, ‘Crime’.
35. Lana Del Rey Ultraviolence
After the excellent early singles, that disastrous SNL performance, the authenticity ‘debate’ and the patchy debut album, Ultraviolence is a great comeback. The sly commentary of ‘Brooklyn Baby’ and ‘Fucked My Way To The Top’ show a level of self awareness many of her critics don’t seem think she possesses. There shouldn’t be anything incongruous about loving this album and Burn Your Fire For No Witness equally. The songwriting and production (the latter courtesy of The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach) is excellent, as is the version of ‘The Other Woman’ originally recorded by Sarah Vaughan in 1956.
34. Jenny Lewis Voyager
This one has proved a bit divisive for Jenny Lewis fans. Six years on from her last solo album Acid Tongue, it’s her most polished and pop record and probably closest in relation to the slightly over-egged and underwritten final Rilo Kiley album Under the Blacklight (but with much better songs). I’m personally of the opinion that the thing would improve everything she does it a little more pop and a little less country, so tracks like ‘Head Underwater’, ‘She’s Not Me’ and ‘Slippery Slopes’ are perfect, while the closing title track – strings, acoustic guitar, understated synths – is one of the year’s most beautiful.
33. Beck Morning Light
Beck’s first proper record in six years finds him reuniting with many of the same musicians who worked on 2002’s Sea Change and returning to the lush, contemplative style that fans of that album (and his cover of ‘Everybody’s Got To Learn Sometimes’) will be familiar with.
But this is more than just a rehash. An update on the seventies singer/songwriter / melodic classic rock vibe, without it sounding like pastiche or the desperate nostalgia of the creatively bankrupt. Instantly grabs you and gets better with each listen.
Recommended Tracks: ‘Morning’, ‘Country Down’, ‘Waking Light’.
32. Tweens Tweens
Trash pop trio from Cincinnati. There’s a bunch of hook laden, tightly wound garage punk songs (‘Be Mean’, ‘Bored In The City’ ‘Hardcore Boy’, ‘Girlfriend’, ‘Rattle and Rollin’ etc), all delivered in singer/songwriter/guitarist Bridget Battle’s mannered, clipped, shout-sing vocal style. But there’s real gold when they deviate from this template as on the likes of the slowed down, soulful ‘Don’t Wait Up’ and ‘Forever’. The latter is a dirty throb of a bassline and distorted metallic guitar following Battle’s vocal melody line. Probably the song I played most in 2014.
31. Marissa Nadler July
Massachusetts indie folk singer with acoustic guitar and beautiful voice, sometimes she employs falsetto, sometimes vibrato. In a similar vein to Angel Olsen but more rooted in folk and the gothic end of dream pop – dreams, desires, death and decay all feature. This is her sixth album and best so far I reckon.
Recommended tracks: ‘Drive’, ‘Was It A Dream’, ‘Dead City, Emily’.
30. Heliocentrics and Melvin Van Peebles Last Transmission
Sci-fi space rock thick with marijuana smoke billed as “an interplanetary space / love odyssey”. This finds the London psych-funk collective collaborating with the 82 year old American director/musician. From the trippy dub of ‘Big Bang Reincarnation’ to space jazz of ‘The Cavern’ to the trippy metallic funk of ‘The Dance’ it’s pretty…er, trippy.
29. Walter Martin ‘We’re All Young Together’
Hard to imagine another “family album” making the list, but this one has bags of charm and a cast to appeal to “children of all ages”. The former Walkmen multi-instrumentalist enlists members of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The National, French Kicks, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Coke Weed and his old pal Hamilton Leithauser and singer songwriter Kat Edmondson. The results are a bunch of great tracks with lyrics that will appeal to kids but also often stand alone as great songs, check out ‘Sing 2 Me’, ‘Rattlesnakes’, ‘It’s A Dream’ and the title track.
28. Tiny Ruins Brightly Painted One
Double bass, restrained drumming, guitar picking and Hollie Fullbrook’s crisp folk vocals all make this album a pleasure to listen to. What elevates it above similar records is the strength of the songwriting – ‘Reasonable Man’, ‘Me at the Museum, You at the Wintergarden’, ‘The Ballad of the Hanging Parcel’, ‘Night Owl’ all hook you in to the Tiny Ruins world.
27. Damien Jurado Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son
Although I was a fan of his early albums, I haven’t kept up with Damien Jurado since On My Way to Absence (2005), so I was not prepared to be blown away by this, his third collaboration with the producer-with-the-golden-touch Richard Swift. A lush atmospheric singer songwriter album that takes on board elements of Harvest-era Neil Young, Ennio Morricone, Iron & Wine and trip hop. Gutted that his first Australian tour was cancelled this year.
Recommended tracks: ‘Magic Number’, ‘Silver Timothy’, ‘Return to Maraqopa’, ‘Silver Joy’.
26. The Afghan Whigs Do To The Beast
Those that were lucky enough to catch the ’Whigs comeback dates may have been dubious about a new album that didn’t feature guitarist Rick McCollum. Although they’ve had to employ at least three other guitarists to move it forward, Do To The Beast delivers. From the menacing opener ‘Parked Outside’ to the horn and string embellished closer ‘These Sticks’ and through the Spaghetti Western of ‘Algiers’ with its fuzzy guitar solo and auto-tuned penultimate verse. The highlight is where the punishing ‘Royal Cream’ changes seamlessly into the subdued ‘I Am Fire’, the latter acting like an extended coda to the former.
25. Stars No One Is Lost
It’s a crime how under appreciated Stars are. At their best they pull on your heartstrings, invoke a yearning for youth that almost knocks you over with it’s force, and really, really make you want to dance. No One Is Lost does all these things and the result is one of the most life affirming albums of 2014. It’s the Pet Shop Boys meets The Smiths meets New Order meets the soundtrack to Some Kind Of Wonderful. The thoughtful older pop sibling to M83’s stadium bombast little brother. There’s a distinct club and disco vibe on several tracks that has not endeared them to everyone, but I can’t imagine compiling any best of 2014 playlist that didn’t include at least three of ‘From The Night’, ‘This is The Last Time’, ‘Turn It Up’, ‘Trapdoor’ and ‘No One is Lost’.
24. Angel Olsen Burn Your Fire For No Witness
The follow up to 2012’s excellent Halfway Home. Singer songwriter who mixes songs with intimate vocals accompanied by electric guitar with those arranged for a full band. Possessor of an emotionally expressive voice which, along with the guitars, she often adds distortion and effects to. Vocally, occasionally reminiscent of Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash, especially when she employs her impressive vibrato.
Recommended tracks: ‘White Fire’ and ‘Forgiven/Forgotten’ are good examples of the two sides of her style.
23. The New Pornographers Brill Bruisers
The sixth album from the Canadian power pop ‘super group’ has proved to be another grower, each of its thirteen tracks seemingly assembled from different pieces layered and stitched together which result in songs like ‘Born with A Sound’ and even the sub-90 second ‘Another Drug Deal of The Heart’ taking a little longer to become the earworms they are. One of those albums where you have a different favourite track every time you listen to it – currently, it’s the bubbling synths, trembling strings and acoustic guitar of ‘Hi-Rise’ with it’s wordless pre-chorus, last time it was the Vocoder n’ electronics of ‘Backstairs’, before that the understated ‘Champions of Red Wine’.
22. Tokyo Police Club Forcefield
Big bright pop rock songs from Ontario band’s fourth album. I doubt there’ll be a better opening track this year than ‘Argentina (Part I,II,III)’ a prog-power-pop three parter that references Evita and gets away with it. If Ex Hex’s Rips is that first James Murphy produced Free Energy album’s big sister, then this is its poppier, less retro little brother.
Recommended tracks: ‘Argentina (Part I,II,III)’, ‘Beaches’, ‘Feel The Effect’.
21. Tacocat NVM
Palindromic Seattle garage rock / sci fi / surfpop band with their second album. Thirteen tracks and only 29 minutes long. Only (the brilliant) ‘Bridge to Hawaii’ is longer than two and half minutes, yet they still manage to fit a middle eight and a key change into the two minutes twelve seconds of ‘Party Trap’ . There’s a couple of great feminist anthems on here – the light hearted ode to menstruation ‘Crimson Wave’ with its “There are communists in the summer house refrain and the more cutting ‘Hey Girl’. But this mainly female band are equal opportunities garage punks – they even let token XY chromosome guitarist Eric Randall sing on ‘Alien Girl’.
20. Mac DeMarco Salad Days
Like a 21st-Century-Canadian-slacker-savant-Marc Bolan, the still only 24 year old MDM’s latest album (his third, though his second under his own name) is his best yet. From the title track to the stoned psych pop of ‘Brother’ and the tropical inflections of ‘Let Her Go’, the drunken guitars of Blue Boy and Beatlesy ‘Passing Out Pieces’ and ‘Go Easy’ this is an album with bags of charm and hardly any let up in the quality of the songs.
19. Alvvays Alvvays Torronto-based indiepop five piece. Singer songwriter Molly Rankin deals in affairs of the heart with a wistful melancholy and the band have a taste for fuzz and trebly distortion that put these songs a million miles away from any idea of tweeness.
Recommended Tracks: ‘Archie Marry, Me’, ‘Adult Diversion’, ‘Next of Kin’.
18. Cloud Nothings Here and Nowhere Else
This is the fourth album from the Cleveland, Ohio indie rockers and the follow up to their excellent Steve Albini produced Attack on Memory (2012). Building on the leanings of that album, this set of songs are once again strongly reminiscent of the melodic / post-hardcore bands of the late 80s. I can’t hear Dylan Baldi’s voice without thinking of those early Lemonheads songs that Ben Deily used to sing.
Recommended tracks: ‘Now Hear In’, ‘Psychic Trauma’, ‘I’m Not Part of Me’.
17. Sharon Van Etten Are We There
After 2012’s solid Tramp, SVE’s fourth album feels like a step forward in songwriting and sonics. Filled with special moments from the dark, brooding ‘Taking My Chances’, the martial rhythms and epic feel of ‘Your Love Is Killing Me’, the heartsick piano-led ‘I Love You But I’m Lost’ and its more strident relative ‘I Know’, to the closing deceptively simple ‘Nothing Will Change’.
16. Interpol El Pintor
I wasn’t expecting to like this, let alone love it. Interpol were one of my favourite bands circa-Turn on the Bright Lights, but it’s been a slow decent into mediocrity and dubious side projects since then. Antics was a good album with some great high points but couldn’t help but feel like a let down after the debut, while Our Love To Admire and the eponymously titled fourth album both had impressive lead singles then failed to deliver. But sonically, dynamically and on the strength of the songs (‘Everything Is Wrong’. ‘All The Rage Back Home’, ‘Twice as Hard’, ‘My Desire’, ‘Ancient Ways’ among their best) this is a great album. No fat or filler and (while some may prefer the work of Peter Katis) this more polished self-produced record has none of the awkward choices that marred the last couple of albums. Gets better on every listen.
15. Sun Kil Moon Benji
Mark Kozelek is on a roll at the moment. Last year saw his Desertshore and Jimmy Lavelle collaborations. Brilliant songwriting, full of pathos and humour. Lots of songs where people die, plus lyrical name checks for Nels Cline and Ben Gibbard.
Recommended tracks: ‘I Love My Dad’, ‘Carissa’, ‘Ben’s My Friend’.
14. The Raveonettes Pe’ahi
Inspired by the death of Sune Rose Wagner’s father, the seventh full length album from the Danish duo is one of 2014’s most underrated records. Perhaps the fact there was no hint that they had an album ready to drop put people on the back foot, but from the opening Suicide-meets-Spector of ‘Endless Sleeper’ to the full on fuzz assault lullaby of ‘Sisters’ to the baggy rhythm and sleigh bells of ‘Killer In The Streets’ to the baroque trip hop pop of ‘Wake Me Up’ and ‘The Rains of May’’s extended motorik coda, this is The Raveonettes at their absolute best. Ten songs, 36 minutes, one great album.
13. St Vincent St Vincent
Previously, I’ve always found St Vincent easy to admire but difficult to love. On her fourth album I either finally get it or she has got a hell of a lot better. What makes her special can often also make her music off putting. ‘Prince Johnny’ wins you over instantly but the likes of the opening ‘Rattlesnake’ and ‘Digital Witness’ can be jarring with how much is going on within their confines. After a few listens, the songs reveal themselves as the wonders that they are, and even seeming economical in lack of superfluous instrumentation – everything here always serves the songs. Feels like a revelation.
12. Future Islands Singles
Minimal synth n’ bass n’ soul combo make a killer pop record on album number four. As on its predecessor On The Water (2011) frontman Samuel T. Herring keeps the early albums’ caged animal vocal excesses to a minimum, making them all the more effective when he does employ them. Atmospheric and emotive stuff.
Recommended tracks: ‘Seasons (Waiting on You)’, ‘Doves’, ‘Back In The Tall Grass’, ‘A Dream of You and Me’.
11. + 10. Parquet Courts Sunbathing Animal / Parkay Quarts Content Nausea
Two albums from the Brooklyn-based ex-pat Texan garage band (Parkay Quarts have a slightly different line up). Though the band are tight, there’s a slackness to their sound, mainly thanks to Andrew Savage and Austin Brown’s vocal delivery. On the former there’s a scratchy, nervous energy to the likes of ‘Black & White’ and ‘Always Back in Town’, a more straight ahead old school punk vibe to the title track, while ‘Dear Ramona’ and ‘Instant Disassembly’ are near somnambulant and the short short‘Up All Night’ is like walking past a door to a nightclub where they’re playing some lost Krautrock-influenced post-punk instrumental. On the latter album there’s a post-Cale-Velvets shuffle to ‘Slide Machine’ and ‘Pretty Machines’ (the latter with a dose of saxophone that wouldn’t be out of place on the first couple of Psychedelic Furs albums), a touch of Krautrock on ‘Kevlar Walls’ and ‘The Map’, a fairly straight cover of ‘These Boots Are Made For Walking’ and a touch of Pavement at their most wistful on ‘Uncast Shadow of a Southern Myth’.
9. Dean Wareham Dean Wareham
Wareham’s songwriting is on a high at the moment, coupled with the presence of producer (and fellow George Harrison fan) Jim James of My Morning Jacket (who also provides keyboard, guitar and backing vocals), this was always going to be an album worth hearing. James’ production adds a welcome Americana influence to the likes of ‘Heartless People’ and a a lush but never cloying feel to ‘Love Is Not a Roof Against The Rain’. Wareham’s voice has never been weightier or warmer, while the whole is littered with incredible arrangements and musical choices, peaking on ‘My Eyes Are Blue’’s use of slide, nylon and electric guitars, mallet percussion and minimal, haunting wordless backing vocals. A warm wonderful album that keeps on getting better with each listen.
8. The War On Drugs Lost In The Dream
A laidback take on 80s arena rock – the influence of Dire Straits / 80s Dylan and Springsteen / Traveling Wilburys runs through it but you don’t even have to feel mildly well disposed to that type of music to really enjoy this. Some great songwriting, guitar playing and beautiful arrangements from Adam Granduciel and co. who also cited Spiritualized as an influence on the album.
Recommended tracks: ‘Red Eyes’, ‘Eyes to the Wind’, ‘Under The Pressure’.
7. Spoon They Want My Soul
Four years on from their underrated Transference and a couple of years on from Britt Daniels sojourn with Divine Fits, Spoon return with another album that wears its new wave, post punk and power pop influences lightly. Guitars crunch, tremble, distort, scratch and squeal, piano is judiciously dropped, keyboards occasionally stab and drums and bass deliver insistent grooves and rumbles. On ‘Rainy Taxi’, ‘Outlier’ and ‘New York Kiss’ it’s the rhythms that take centre stage – a liquid yet angular post punk funk that moves the band onto the dancefloor without losing any of what has always made them special. Another classic.
6. Honeyblood Honeyblood
Noisepop, occasionally with a country tinge (‘Bud’, ‘No Spare Key’, ‘Braidburn Valley’), lyrics that deal with love and heartache, anger, sleazeballs, resilience, or are inspired by the work of Angela Carter. There’s some occasional bass, keyboards and extra percussion but the backbone of these songs come from the female duo. Stina Tweedale has a way with words, a voice to match and some nice line in fuzz n’ crunch guitar playing, while (since departed) drummer Shona McVicar keeps it simple and adds backing vocals. This is an album that fits nicely into the history of Scottish (esp. Glasgow-based) indie pop while clearly having it’s own personality.
5. Woods With Light & With Love
From the pastoral Americana of the opening ‘Shepherd’, through the jangling psych pop of ‘Shining’ (which recalls both The Byrds and The Beatles), the extended guitar workout on the nine minute plus title track (worthy of Crazy Horse) and the shuffling pop of ‘Moving to the Left’ this is an album that keeps on giving. Influences firmly rooted in the period from 1965-1971, for me this is the album that has all the warmth, charm and personality that was lacking from the similarly retro Temples album. There’s some particularly lovely George Harrison-like guitar on ‘Full Moon’ too.
4.Hamilton Leithauser Black Hours
The only good thing about The Walkmen going on an “extreme hiatus” is that this year we got three solo albums from its members, all of which of worth checking out. After being wrong-footed by the up tempo, repetitive first single ‘Alexandra’, Black Hours reveals itself as a beautiful and nuanced album, the biggest grower of the year too. From the smoky, strings, piano and bowed bass of ‘5AM’, to the marimba adorned ‘The Silent Orchestra’, the afropop inflections of ‘11 O’Clock Friday Night’ (with its “You and me and everybody else” refrain), the late night melancholy of ‘Self Pity’ to the Bob Dylan-and- George Harrison join-Lennon on the lost weekend of ‘I Retired’, nearly every track is special. Even ‘Alexandra’ makes more sense in this context. Like the best of the latter work of The Walkmen, this is an album that takes cues from the past, often feels timeless, but never dated. I fully expect to feel as strongly about this album in 25 years time as I do right now. A treasure, for sure.
5. Ex Hex Rips
After the dissolution of Wild Flag, DC veteran Mary Timony bounces back with something that sounds “like classic rock radio from the future” (thanks, The Washington Post). Crunchy, glam-meets-power pop guitars (‘Don’t Wanna Lose Your Love’, ‘New Kid’), garage punk meets new wave (‘You Fell Apart’, ‘Beast’) a hint of Krautrock (‘War Paint’) and a healthy dose of The Cars (‘How You Got That Girl’, ‘Waste Your Time’). All with killer riffs and choruses. It manages to acknowledge the past without being a slave to it. It’s closest modern equivalent is probably the debut Free Energy album (another personal favourite).
2. Hospitality Trouble
From the monochrome minimalism of the cover, (photo obscured by diagonal lines, no artist name or title on the front, italicized all caps on a field of steel blue on the back ) it’s clear that this is a different beast to the sunny indie pop of their debut (one of my favourite albums of 2011). Only the lovely but modest ‘It’s Not Serious’ and ‘Sunship’ seem of a piece with that album. Trouble still features Amber Papini’s great songwriting and a strong melodic sensibility, but benefits from atmospheres, arrangements and solos wearing the influence of Television, Pink Floyd and Magazine (check out the solos and instrumental passages on ‘I Miss Your Bones’, ‘Last Words’ and ‘Going Out’). And although Papini’s guitar playing gives the songs as much of their character as her songwriting does, the basslines of Brian Bettancourts and drummer / co-producer Nathan Michel’s contributions on synth are key in elevating the songs to another level.
1. The Wharves ‘At Bay’
An album that sounds like nothing else out there at the moment. While Medieval and Renaissance harmonic styles bring a spectral folk vibe (‘The Grip’, ‘Scarlet For Ya’) and post punk guitars repeat little motifs or curlicue away (‘Renew’, ‘Mother Damnable’), there’s also the odd Gallic fairground waltz here (‘Ode à Jimmy’), and bit of Sabbath heaviosity there (the bassline of ‘Faultline’). As singular and special a record as Life Without Buildings’ Any Other City.