Who listens to full LPs anymore? I for one do. It is honestly my preferred mode of listening. Of course, I appreciate a good mixtape or a well curated playlist for a mood, occasion, or exposure (see here). But full albums provide a unique experience, a journey, an extended artistic exploration or rumination on a theme or concept. If someone recommended a good writer, would you really only read the three or four pages of the book? That seems odd to me. Same theory applies to an album. A song needs to be placed in its context and sequencing. So I prefer the long form or long play.
One of the things that will be evident to the reader is the preponderance and predominance of female artists and female fronted groups on this list. While I definitely tend towards female vocalists, I think this marks a great year (and a continuing trend!) in a more balanced musical landscape. But these aren’t simply “pop sensations” cast for their “cute”, “sexy”, “girlish” looks. All of these are women with indisputable artistic integrity and merit who let their work (i.e., skill in composing and writing) speak for itself – not through calculated manipulation of the marketplace or the Twitterverse. I digress.
Why these records? Simply these are the records I listened and returned to the most or obsessed over for extended re-plays wanting to get lost in their world of sound and stories. I’ve rocked out with my fist in the air, shook my hips or bopped my head with abandon, contemplated the mysteries of existence and being, grooved slowly across the floor, screamed with adolescent angst, pined with the hopeless heartache, and cried in the shared experience of sadness, longing, and awe. In short, I’ve shared many wonderful moments with these albums and want to share them with you. (As always, Spotify links provided.)
Enjoy and see you in 2015! a.a.
Lost In the Dream by The War on Drugs (Rock) is quite simply a staggering, timeless record, which also had the most staying power on this listener’s turntable and headphones. Imagine if you packed the freewheelin’ spirit of Dylan with the guitar virtuosity of Dire Straits and the anthemic quality of Springsteen. Few albums fulfill the unabashed joy of rocking while ruminating over the quandary that is existence as this masterpiece does.
Are We There by Sharon Van Etten (Indie Rock) is a true gift to those who desire honest and soul searching songwriting cast against a sea of lush, soothing, densely layered compositions. SVE is an amazing talent (and from her stage banter a spritely soul) who keeps providing us with an opportunity to learn how to open ourselves and delve into the amorous places we dare or dread to go.
Burn Your Fire For No Witness by Angel Olsen (Neo Folk) is the work of truly unique voice. Musically Olsen is the queen of using sparseness and space to evoke a world bursting and ripe with emotion. On this record she also aggressively rocks out. Lyrically, though, Angel is a truly gifted writer with the ability to look into the emotional abyss and not simply stare but scream back in willful passion against the darkness.
Somewhere Else by Lydia Loveless (Insurgent Country/Rock) has been my go to record when I need a jolt in the arm. Lydia is brash, bold, and speaks her mind without any worry. She embraces her longings and desires when cooler heads would refrain, loves with full and reckless abandon, turns from those who would tell her how to live, and reminds us that a life without regret and played by the book, is probably not worth living.
I Never Learn by Lykke Li (Dream Pop). By now you are getting the picture, I love or really loved records filled with raw, deep, and intense emotions. I Never Learn, Lykee’s third album, is no exception. In my estimation this her most fully realized record with gorgeously rich and lush orchestration, layers of cascading sounds, and heavenly reveals. This is definitely a record that will soothe and inspire your wounded soul.
They Want My Soul by Spoon (Rock) – It has been a long time (probably since Girls Can Tell) that I’ve loved and listened to a Spoon record with this much repetition and gusto. For me, Britt and the boys are at their best when getting into the soulful and sensual depths of rock and roll (e.g. “Inside Out” and “Knock Knock Knock”). While I love over the top 70s rock (like “Cherry Bomb”), I prefer it when they go for the more subtle and deftly crafted songs like “New York Kiss” (oh that synth line) or the curiously confrontational “Do You”.
St. Vincent by St. Vincent (Indie Rock) is not a statement it is a giant scream from the depths of Annie Clark’s artistic soul. No album this year crafted such a dense and consistent aesthetic that pushes the boundaries of “pop(ular) music” with quirky, bizarre loops, guitar riffs, synthetic and non-Western percussion (a la the Talking Heads), and stylized vocals. Yet, St. Vincent isn’t simply an “act” or “art statement” in the vein of a Bowie reinvention, Annie Clark uses the elevated levels of production to offer a comical and searing observation of contemporary American culture. She is a treasure to be heeded.
Tough Love by Jessie Ware (Pop) is an album for those who recognize that love isn’t simply teenage fantasies and romance, but a complicated and complex web of desires, actions, and words. Jessie will guide you through heartache and infatuation with sweet and soothing soul that will leave you blissfully at peace.
Morning Phase by Beck (Neo Folk) – I never thought a folk record could be epic and grandiose. Generally, folk is the realm of the small details, the minutiae, or the seemingly picayune (though affecting) moments of our life. They are the things of lore and legend. Morning Phase is a series of observations on life as seen from extend aerial view, space ship, or the perspective of old wise soul. Beck has always been a master of pop innovation. On this record, he takes us on a spiritual journey to ask bigger questions, only we can answer those, but he’s given us a gorgeous soundtrack with which to explore them.
The Moon Rang the Bell by Hundred Waters (Indie-Electronic) / Sylvan Esso by Sylvan Esso (Indie-Electronic) / Cool Choices by S (Indie Rock) – All three of these records share a common theme for me. Each in its own way creates an atmosphere and environment of sound that while extremely intricate conveys a sense of sparseness and simplicity. The austerity of each allows the listener to inhabit each artist’s aural world as though you were in private room watching flickering images of the ideas conveyed through song. Hundred Waters evoke angelic and ethereal visions with their Cocteau Twins like elements combined with lush, intricate composition. Sylvan Esso create the warm and soothing sensation of home and hearth with Amelia Meath’s dreamy vocals and Nick Sanborn intoxicating (and hip shaking) grooves. S (the work of Jenn Ghetto) feels like a musical bildungsroman replete with stories of growing up as an outsider (and feeling as though you never will escape), questioning and embracing the ephemeral nature of love, the heartbreaking reality of betrayal and distrust, and the constant need never to give up.
II by Makthaverskan (Indie Rock) – From the minute I heard the first note on II, I knew I would become hopelessly infatuated with Makthaverskan. These Swedes bring blend British New Wave with the pace of punk, the jam qualities of shoe-gazer rock, and the angst of youth. If Nena fronted the Cure with Kevin Shields (of MBV) and J. Mascis alternatively providing guitar parts, then you’ve got an idea how this band is the perfect Venn diagram of what I love in music.
LP1 by FKA Twigs (Indie-Electronic) – If you want to set the mood with a completely sensual intoxicating album, you have found your record. I think this is the Dummy of this generation. It encapsulates and exemplifies the unique blend of downtempo electronic and R&B that is on the fringe of the overproduced saccharine dance and EDM that fills the airwaves.
Say Yes to Love by Perfect Pussy (Hardcore- Punk – Indie Rock) – In what I think was an amazing year for punk or punk infused Indie rock, Meredith Graves and the members of Perfect Pussy released what is far and away the most aggressive, in-your-face record that sticks to the heart of Hardcore/Punk’s mission: brief, acerbic, wide-eyed, and unapologetic observations and indictment of our culture.
“What Is This Love?” by How To Dress Well (Indie-RB) is the follow up to Tom Krell’s heart wrenching Total Loss, a reflection on those absences – of short and extended durations, lost or abandoned relationships, or the permanent loss- in our lives. On this album, Tom focuses on the natural counterpoint: Love with its highs and lows, ebbs and flows, passion and infatuations, and its ephemeral and protean nature. What he does so well, though, is to make this lyrical exploration a great slow grooving dance party. If you can’t groove out to “Repeat Pleasure” or “Precious Love”, it might be time to question whether you are a replicant.
Blue Breath by Bellows (Neo Folk) – Over the past month I’ve fallen hopelessly in love with this record. There is something in Bellows unique brand of Lo-Fi Folk Rock that recalls Elliott Smith and early Bright Eyes with the delicate and intricate songwriting of Sufjan Stevens. Yes, those are fairly tall shoes to fill, but listen and see if you disagree.
Rips by Ex Hex (Rock) – With the exception of Spoon, no band rocked it harder from start to finish than Mary Timony’s newest project. This is an album for those that adore unabashed adrenaline generated punk-infused rock. It is a roller coaster ride of sweet riffs and guitar hooks from start to finish. …for fans of the Ramones, Cars, and Joan Jett.
Home Like No Place There Is by The Hotelier & Never Hungover Again by Joyce Manor (Emo-Punk) – Nothing has brought more joy to this boy’s musical heart than the return of unabashed raw energy of punk rock with heart-on-sleeve emotional release of euphoria and despondency. Yes, I mean I am thrilled that Emo is finally back! When you feel deeply, intensely, and with every fiber of your being, it’s cool. And, it is even cooler to express that at the top of your lungs with your voice in near shreds because the very act of singing these thoughts is the apex of being. Whenever I find myself in a rut, personally or mentally frustrated, I turn to these two records, dim the lights and sing along in teenage abandon. (You’ll know it is true if you’ve ever been to a show with me.) I saw The Hotelier perform three times this year and each occasion it made you believe in the power of music to bring people together to share in their unified release of emotion. Joyce Manor takes me back to my college days in Providence with long late night conversations about silly academic subjects, women that broke my friends’ hearts, dreams of the future, and all sorts of pop culture minutia that filled our minds because we were the sort of kids who sat around garages with Kitty Pride and twelve-sided dies. Oh, and this record is a perfect 19 minutes in length!!!
Nervous Like Me by Cayetana (Indie Rock-Punk) – Another record discovered at the end of 2014 that has become a staple of my winter listening. This is an all-female three piece set from Philadelphia that play upbeat and infectious pop punk. While this isn’t emo, there is just as much raw and vitriolic emotion pulsing through these songs. At moments, I feel like I’m listening to a blend of Rainer Maria and Pretty Girls Make Graves with an even more raucous rock energy.
Sundowners by Anthony Saint (Insurgent Country – Rock) – When I first heard Anthony perform, I was blown away by what an amazingly talented guitar player and singer he was. At the time, he was playing a brand of rock that bent more to 70s guitar. On Sundowners, he blends his mastery of 70s rock with a gorgeous turn towards Americana or Insurgent Country. I love the rawness and the Lo-FI fuzz (often employed by the late 60 Beatles/Harrison) that gives these tracks the sound of being played or recorded live (e.g., “Breakin Down”) or the ballady, 70s AM Wilco quality with Dylan-like twang of “Beg, Steal, and Borrow”. This album is that rare treasure: a full-fledged dose of country and rock without any excess or unnecessary notes, just the perfect sense of coming to a familiar musical home. Listen below and visit Anthony’s Bandcamp page.
Okay… so you all know by now that I have little restraint when it comes to music. There were many other records I really dug in 2014 and I would feel remiss in not at least mentioning them. Therefore, below are a list by musical universe of my favorite records. No links to the records but I am sure you can use the search feature in Spotify by now.
Return to Roots – Insurgent Cowboys, Folk-y Minstrels and Soulful Sojourners
- Metamodern Sounds in Country Music by Sturgill Simpson (Rock) – This was the stripped down, roots-y Country record I was looking for this year. Found it just in the nick of time. Got a love a country song that starts with the line “Woke up today decided to kill my ego, had never done me no good no how…”
- Ryan Adams by Ryan Adams (Rock) – Ryan Adams returns to what he does best, contemplating the troubled insides of his/our lives.
- PHOX by PHOX (Neo Folk) – Silky-sweet folk music with a decided 60s pop feel.
- Half the City by St Paul & the Broken Bones (Soul-RB) – For fans of Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Sam Cooke, and just good old soul tinged rock and roll. Get your dancing shoes on.
- Stay Gold by First Aid Kit (Neo Folk) – The thirds and most complete record from these Swedish sisters. Wavering between 50s folks and 70s Americana, these ladies are amazing songwriters and storytellers.
- The Double EP by Courtney Barnett (Indie Rock) – CB weaves fantastic stories in a speak-talk reminiscent of Tom Waits and Bob Dylan with far sweeter melodies.
- HEAL by Strand of Oaks (Rock) – Wow. This album is all about loving rock music and how it fuels our spirit and soul. Listen to “Goshen ‘97” and think about all the kids in basements, garages, and bedrooms that find redemption and transcendence in rock. It is awesome!
- Madman by Sean Rowe (Neo Folk) – A vastly under appreciated and underrated songwriter. Sean Rowe has the voice that makes you want to fall into for hours and days.
- The Voyager by Jenny Lewis (Indie Rock) – From child star to Indie Rock heartthrob, is there anything Jenny Lewis can’t do? No seriously I’m not speaking rhetorically.
The Lover, the Dreamers, and Me – a collection of amazing dream pop albums.
- Alvvays by Alvvays (Dream Pop)
- True Love Kills the Fairytale by The Casket Girls (Dream Pop)
- Parades by Mina Tindle (Dream Pop)
- Zentropy by Frankie Cosmos (Dream Pop)
- Complete Surrender by Slow Club (Dream Pop)
- Too True by Dum Dum Girls (Dream Pop)
- EP II by Alice Boman (Dream Pop)
The Pop Stars
- Singles by Future Islands (Pop)
- Goddess by Banks (Pop)
- The Brink by The Jezabels (Pop)
Please Kill Me… Punk and Its Descendants
- Here and Nowhere Else by Cloud Nothing (Indie Rock-Punk)
- Hour of the Dawn by La Sera (Indie-Punk Rock)
- NVM by Tacocat (Indie Rock-Punk)
- I’ll Be the Tornado by Dads (Emo-Punk)
- Youth Culture Forever by Paws (Indie Rock-Punk)
The Art Rock Kids
- This is All Yours by Alt-J (Indie Rock)
- Sea When Absent by A Sunny Day in Glasgow (Indie Rock)
- Familiars by The Antlers (Indie Rock)
- nikki nack by Tune-Yards (Indie Rock)
- Post-Tropical by James Vincent McMorrow (Neo Folk)