Best Albums of 2014

—by Liam Knox & Ally Santa Maria—

Lost in the Dream—The War on Drugs

I wish I lived during Bob Dylan’s heyday. Not the new age, experimental, washed-out Dylan of today but the protester, the storyteller, the larger-than-life poet.  When I listen to The War on Drugs’ latest album, released in March, I am comforted in knowing that at least there is someone to pick up the torch.  The Philly-based quartet, led by maestro Adam Granduciel, took more than two years to produce their third album follow-up to 2011’s critically acclaimed sophomore effort Slave Ambient, but it was definitely time well spent.  The echoing vibrations of quiet guitars and stealthy snare drums are pinned to the track by a persistent keyboard white noise, giving the album a surreal feeling.  The brilliant storytelling in Granduciel’s heartbreakingly sincere lyrics leaves you with a feeling that he’s talking about you, without really knowing what he’s saying.  Everything is ambience, and the narrative style of Dylan (whose work reportedly inspired  The War On Drugs’ founding) is given over to modernism and its vast doubts.  Lost in the Dream leaves you clutching at meaning like a kid chasing fireflies in the heartland night.  Then it brings you to the realization that the meaning lies therein—in the grasping, in the jumping, in the doubtful, hopeful dancing under the prairie moon, lost forever in the dream of grabbing hold of something real.

STANDOUT TRACK: “Under the Pressure”

Liam Knox

Run the Jewels 2—Run the Jewels

The rap duo El-P and Killer Mike revealed their collaborative powers to the indie rap scene this year like the rush of a trench coat exposing a concealed weapon.  They released not one but two albums in the past year and a half, both titled eponymously and both friggin’ awesome.  Listen to the first one, sure, but the second one, released this October, takes the cake.  Although maybe it’s not the cake it takes so much as all your money, your credit cards and your sense of self-importance.  Run The Jewels’ beats hold you at gunpoint and demand all your attention, and you sink to your knees in delighted acquiescence, because there’s not much in your wallet anyways and you’ve never been robbed before and it’s exciting.  Their lyrical prowess is refreshingly intelligent and creative, a mix of insane alliterative rhyme schemes and straightforward social commentary.  They mix free flowing jazz riffs into their style, which is something like a mix between trap music’s entrancing beats, Das Racist’s unique lyricism and the smooth flow of underground groups like The Underachievers.  If you’re craving the enticing bass of club music but are sick and tired of the unintelligible, whiny rappers who make it, check out Run The Jewels.  It can be a frightening start, but in the end you’ll remember the thrill of the adventure—and this album reminds you that that’s all that really matters.

STANDOUT TRACK: “Close Your Eyes”

Liam Knox

Benji—Sun Kil Moon

Benji, released in February, is so touchingly mundane that it has an otherworldly beauty.  The stories become instantly recognizable to anyone who’s been through an awkward romance, a death in the family, a bout of existentialist nostalgia, and their messages are unfailingly uplifting if a bit anticlimactic.  Singer/songwriter Mark Kozelek formed Sun Kil Moon in 2002 as an experiment in harrowingly resplendent folk. Kozelek’s moaning drawl is incredibly intimate, sometimes taking the form of endless ramblings and rhyming only a few times per song in strategic places, so it feels more like a candid conversation or an old friend telling a story with a sprinkling of melodic acoustics for ambience.  He touches on themes of historical repetition, the mysticism of tragedy and all of life’s random injustices, the glowing appeal of childhood and the awfully confusing complexities introduced with adulthood.  The album’s first track, “Carissa,” is the most representative of these themes—Kozelek raises his voice in a rare moment of understated anger to ask the heavens about his cousin’s unlikely death from the explosion of an aerosol can in her trash: “Carissa was 35, you don’t just raise two kids and take out your trash and die/She was my second cousin, I didn’t know her well at all but that don’t mean that I wasn’t/Meant to find some poetry, to make some sense of it, to find a deeper meaning.”  Benji’s simple chords and poetic narratives wrap their arms around you like a wise old uncle, and Kozelek points his calloused finger in the direction of that meaning—uncle Benji knows you must squint and search on your own, but he’ll leave you with the hint of a smile and the echoes of a steel guitar wafting down a gentle breeze to guide you on your way.

STANDOUT TRACK: Carissa

Liam Knox

St. Vincent – St. Vincent

Annie Clark, the lead singer of St. Vincent, is immensely talented.  Her ability to create a different persona for her music shines through on her latest and best album St. Vincent.  When performing live, Clark may appear to be a “psychopath;” but upon seeing her in interviews, she is actually quite normal, which just makes this album even more remarkable.  The album is experimental rock and weird in all the right places.  Clark messes with and recreates pop melodies and guitar riffs that are freaky but at the same time pleasant to the ear.  The lyrics are poetic and beautifully painful, but Clark hides them behind the upbeat tempo and the quirky (in a good way) synth.  Every song on the album is marked with Clark’s incredibly innovative and distinct guitar skills.  Songs were pushed to their limits with Clark’s ability to make standout riffs that in no way bear resemblance to the popular guitarists of our time.  Clark’s creativity is pushed lyrically and instrumentally to create an album that could be the soundtrack to a depressing indie film or the next Project X.  St. Vincent has it all, with music that leaves you searching aimlessly for another album that sounds just like it.

STANDOUT TRACK – “Birth in Reverse”

Ally Santa Maria

They Want My Soul – Spoon

Unlike the title suggests, Spoon really found their soul on their latest album.  After a much-needed hiatus and some work with new producers, the band returned with an album that never loses its energy.   It songs blend into each other but each retain a unique power.  Every track floats from funky to jumpy to grungy to make a mesh of songs that work perfectly together.  But at the same time, the group doesn’t try to be something they’re not; they stay true to their core sound and create music that sounds uninfluenced.  The sound feels familiar, but it doesn’t get old three songs into the record.  It’s interesting but not overwhelming.  I don’t want Spoon’s soul, I want their ability to create an entire album, where each song is so brilliant it makes it difficult to pick one that stands out the most.  Besides, Spoon can keep its soul; the album sounds better that way.

STANDOUT TRACK – “Do You”

Ally Santa Maria

Morning Phase – Beck

After six years of silence from Beck, Morning Phase has risen from the ashes, and damn was it worth the wait.  The album is parallel to his earlier album Sea Change, which came out in 2002—they even have similar covers.  Just like in Sea Change, which was fueled by a breakup, 2014 Beck cuts the hipster irony and speaks honestly about the world, although this time, his work wasn’t fueled by a rough breakup.  Standout track “Turn Away” rings with solidarity and self-discovery, but songs like “Heart is a Drum” are lighter, with more of a honky-tonk feel to them.  This isn’t an album that should make you wonder about why you exist; it’s just an easy-going record that asks some thoughtful questions.  Every track is mellow folk-rock tied together with gentle melodies and melancholy vocals.  Everything sounds a lot cleaner than the other popular Beck songs, like “Loser,” but it comes off as pure and laidback, not merely the work of some stuck-up perfectionist.  It is a slow-going album that won’t be enjoyed if you’re in a hurry, but in the quickening pace of today’s world, it is nice to lean back and just enjoy it for what it is.

STANDOUT TRACK – “Blue Moon”

Ally Santa Maria

Listen to our top 50 tracks here.

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