KCSU's Top Albums of 2014 (Zach Johnson)
It’s about the time of the year we bid adieu to 2014. As music director for the station, I listened to more albums this year than I ever have. And while it was probably the weakest year in music of the decade thus far, there were still a plethora of awesome releases that graced my ears over the last twelve months. Here are the ones that I loved the most.
Aphex Twin, Syro
Ballet School, The Dew Lasts an Hour
Gazelle Twin, Unflesh
How to Dress Well, What is this Heart?
Joyce Manor, Never Hungover Again
Lydia Ainsworth, Right from Real
No, El Prado
A Sunny Day in Glasgow, Sea When Absent
Sylvan Esso, Sylvan Esso
20. The Menzingers, Rented World
Alvvays and The Menzingers were basically tied for #20, but I gave the slight edge to these Philadelphia punk rockers. They’re not delivering anything staggeringly original here and it’s a step down from 2012’s fantastic On the Impossible Past, but they still deliver some kickass pop punk jams. “In Remission” and “Where Your Heartache Exists” still get me every time.
19. The Wytches, Annabel Dream Reader
These Brits’ debut plants them firmly within the ranks of the most exciting new bands of the year. It sounds like a dark, psychedelic circus where the pissed-off freakshow members beat you senseless with baseball bats afterwards for marveling at their misfortunes. If you can keep yourself from headbanging until your neck is sore when listening to Dream Reader, you’re a stronger person than me.
18. Against Me!, Transgender Dysphoria Blues
At one point in my life, I would have considered Against Me! one of my favorite bands, but lackluster releases in 2007 and 2010 had me starting to question my fandom. I’m glad to report Laura Jane Grace took my doubts, lit them on fire and threw them back in my face. TDB approaches its important subject matter with volatile force while still remaining catchy and fun, resulting in some of the best punk tunes of the year.
17. Spoon, They Want My Soul
For whatever reason, I’ve always lumped Spoon into the category of flaccid, dime-a-dozen indie rock groups, but They Want My Soul showed me how wrong I was. From the airy, atmospheric “Inside Out” to the anthemic rocker “They Want My Soul,” Spoon deliver nothing but quality here. Is their older stuff this good? What else have I been wrong about in my life? This has me questioning all of my deepest-held beliefs.
16. BADBADNOTGOOD, III
This is how you make jazz relevant in 2014. The Toronto instrumental-hip-hop-meets-jazz trio’s third release is their first album of all-original material, and it’s also the perfection of their sound. If tracks like “Can’t Leave the Night” and “CS60” don’t have you praying at the altar of BBNG, I have no hope for you.
15. Ty Segall, Manipulator
I’ve never considered myself a huge Ty Segall fan, but Manipulator is everything I’ve wanted from the man in one neat, hour-long package. Almost all of the songs are memorable in their own right, and no album this year rocked harder. Most of my favorite albums of 2014 contained some sort of electronic element, but Manipulator made me embrace my inner rock-and-roller.
14. Isaiah Rashad, Cilvia Demo
This was my favorite hip-hop release of the year until very late in 2014. The latest signing to Top Dawg Entertainment easily blew past labelmates Schoolboy Q and Ab-Soul and delivered a super solid pack of tracks with his debut. This doesn’t seem to be getting quite the attention it deserves, but I imagine he should be a force to be reckoned with after his next album.
13. Trust, Joyland
Trust’s self-titled debut in 2012 was the soundtrack to an all-night rave at a bondage nightclub replete with gloryholes and sketchy characters. Joyland is the sound of that nightclub entering the 1990s, throwing a healthy helping of glitter and glowsticks into the debauchery. Robert Alfons is one of the most intriguingly different vocalists in today’s indie landscape, and no record this year made me want to dance until I puked more.
12. St. Vincent, St. Vincent
The first thing that’s clear when you listen to St. Vincent is how big an influence David Byrne was on Annie Clark in the last couple of years. She’s suddenly transformed into a grey-haired goddess and delivered her funkiest, most confident album to date. While I do admittedly prefer the slightly more subdued Strange Mercy, St. Vincent is a great change of pace and delivers humorous lyrics and innovative guitar shredding in spades.
11. Swans, To Be Kind
At over two hours long, To Be Kind is a massive undertaking. But it’s also a rewarding one. This is less hellish than 2012’s The Seer; it’s still crushing, but some tracks are downright funky and it’s a much less oppressive listening experience. It might be long and repetitive, but to criticize the album for being so is completely missing the point of Swans. The reformed Swans are three-for-three thus far. Get out of your comfort zone and give your ears some much-needed pain.
10. La Dispute, Rooms of the House
If I still listened to as much emo as I did in 2013, this would probably be a vastly different list. But the truth is I didn’t find the genre as appealing as I have in the past, and La Dispute’s newest is the only album in its genre to make the cut. Rooms of the House stands tall over a pack of eerily similar emo releases, delivering a set of tracks that explores new territory for the band while still being as emotionally hard-hitting as ever.
9. Flying Lotus, You’re Dead!
While 2012’s Until the Quiet Comes was great, You’re Dead! returns FlyLo to the highs he reached on Cosmogramma. It delivers the insanely proficient IDM fans have come to expect while exploring much jazzier and more overtly spiritual territory as well. Truth is, it’s a lot to unpack and can feel a little overwhelming at first, but, as far as I’m concerned, Flying Lotus is unstoppable and You’re Dead! confirms that wholeheartedly.
8. Iceage, Plowing into the Field of Love
As a huge fan of Iceage’s first two releases, I was ready to be disappointed by Field of Love due to its complete 180 in sound. Turns out I enjoy Elias Rønnenfelt’s uncouth vocals over Nick Cave-esque, booze-drenched post-punk almost as much as I do artsy noise punk. It lacks the energy of their old work, but it oozes passion and I love how apt the band is to abandon their old sound when they feel it might become stale.
7. Run the Jewels, Run the Jewels 2
A lot of my favorite 2013 releases were hip-hop (Yeezus, Old, Government Plates), but 2014 just didn’t deliver as quality of content. Then Run the Jewels 2 dropped and it made everything okay. The first four tracks got me more pumped than anything that came out this year. The album is banger after banger, packed with smart, clever lyricisms, godlike flow and mind-blowing production.
6. Protomartyr, Under Color of Official Right
I think I tend to rank releases higher that I was not expecting. Like, of course the new Flying Lotus is going to be good, but who the fuck are Protomartyr? These Detroit garage post-punkers exceeded all of my expectations; I love the drum work, the lyrics are snarky and they just sound like perfect working-class art punk. Blast this shit.
5. Sharon van Etten, Are We There
Let’s start out by saying singer-songwriters usually draw forth undeserved hatred from the core of my being. I’m sick to death of lightly strummed acoustic guitars and dull folk vocalists. But Are We There proved to me that there’s still life in the genre to be found; Etten’s latest is eleven beautiful tracks stuffed to the brim with emotion, buoyed by an exceptional vocal performance. Just truly fantastic stuff.
4. Hundred Waters, The Moon Rang Like a Bell
This was my biggest surprise of 2014, considering I found Hundred Waters’ self-titled debut to be an absolute snoozefest. The Moon Rang Like a Bell is an improvement in every way; this is perhaps the most organic I’ve ever heard art pop sound, carrying interesting folk undertones and feeling like perfect deep forest listening. It’s both introspective and danceable, and I’m excited to see what this group does in the future.
3. Wild Beasts, Present Tense
I’m not seeing this on too many year-end lists, and I’m judging everybody for it. Present Tense is overtly theatrical and all the best for it; the yin-yang interplay between vocalists Hayden Thorpe and Tom Fleming is absolutely flawless, every track is an earworm and what could’ve easily crossed into cheese territory just sounds regal. By the time you reach magical album closer “Palace,” you just want to listen to the whole thing again.
2. Makthaverskan, II
Technically a 2013 release, but the States weren’t graced with its presence until 2014 and it deserves more attention, so I find it justified. These Swedes came out of nowhere and absolutely blew me away with their mix of post-punk, dream pop and jangle pop. This is everything I’ve ever wanted in music; it is nine tracks of perfection, “Asleep” is a solid contender for my favorite song of the year, and you need to listen to them now. NOW.
1. FKA twigs, LP1
For me, 2014 was the year of Twigs. Early in the year, I was blown away when I heard her EP2, 15 minutes of haunting genius. As such, I had the highest of expectations for LP1, and lo and behold, I was not let down. Her breathy voice exudes any emotion she wishes to put forth (early on, the diffident, insecure “Lights On” gives way to sex-goddess anthem “Two Weeks”), the production is absolutely insane (“Numbers,” man. “Numbers.”), and it all works as a perfect blend of 2010s alt-R&B and cold, wonky art pop. Any album footed in either of those genres released after LP1 just felt lacking in comparison.