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Best of 2014 Albums

It’s Best Albums time! Honorable mention to The Bug, St. Vincent, The Hold Steady, Nothing, and The Men (which may be something like 15-11, or maybe not). Here we go…

10. We Come from the Same Place by Allo Darlin’ – Lately I find it so easy to fall for quiet, charming pop. My working rationale: it serves as counterbalance to the (often) high-energy and aggressive sounds of my usual favorite groups. British group Allo Darlin’ hooks and adores right into your heart with beautiful guitars, cheerful singing, and an airy sense of forward motion.

It’s their light percussion that I’m most fascinated by in retrospect, almost completely opposite of recent love The National (a drums-first kind of band). Here, the rhythm operates behind the scenes, brushed and skittering along. It’s an essential choice, giving the ringing guitars room to move and the cooing vocals places to fill.

09. LOSE by Cymbals Eat Guitars – For me, the inroad to LOSE was the wonderful guitar aggression. The one-two opening punch of “Jackson” and album highlight “Warning” are as powerful a pure rock performance as you’ll find in 2014. After you’ve been hooked, you’re in line to enjoy the rest of the album-long ride.

Cinematic centerpiece “Laramie” ebbs and flows with changes in instrumentation and tempo. “Place Names” builds slowly before crackling to life in a blaze of energy. Closer “2 Hip Soul” lets Sonic Youth noise give way to a solitary piano. While I come back to the guitar pieces most often, the rest of LOSE is a fantastic car ride.

08. Manipulator by Ty Segall – Do you like rock music? Do you like raw, aggressive, potent, fuzzed out, psychedelic guitar rock music? Are you willing to overlook a bit of excess to get that in one album? Oh good, then this is exactly the thing for you! No doubt fans of the genre will find a ton to love here, and fans of Segall himself are probably over the moon and back a few times. Segall’s spacy voice and guitar heroics are in fine form yet again. Also nice? The sonic palette covers some decent territory while staying self-consistent over the album (the bassy tracks, occasional strings, and slower songs help keep up variety).

The main drawback? The length of the collection. At just under an hour, Manipulator drags. It’s hard to pinpoint any exact weak point. Instead, the issue is fatigue factor. You could probably take any 10-12 of the 17 tracks and make a superb record. Of course, if you’re into this sound, the massive boost to your collection is more than reason enough to jump at Manipulator.

07. Singles by Future Islands – Look past “Seasons” for a minute (don’t worry, we’ll be back). Through the other 9 songs, Singles is an emotional ride, filled with nostalgia, exuberance, sexual energy, and a deep sense of sadness. Much of the heavy lifting is done by singer and frontman Samuel T Herring, delivering 10 track of soul-on-sleeve intimacy. The sincerity is given incredible volume with his intense (and distinct) style.

Supporting Herring is the loose, warm bass and the calculated, perfect synth sounds. And that’s where the real payoff lies: that interplay between the human irrational of the verbalized meaning, and the cool creation of the electronics. “Doves” hits the mark perfectly, especially in its hypercharged ending. Herring pleads, “Ooh ba-by, don’t hurt no more,”  a line given jarring power atop the sliding guitar noise and the chime-like rings of the sounds below.

And then there’s this matter of “Seasons (Waiting On You).” It is one of the year’s best songs, brought to an even bigger public place thanks to that whole Letterman thing. It’s nice that Future Islands is getting the exposure. That the song is so good? Even more satisfying.

06. Blue Planet Eyes by The Preatures – This Australian band caught me last year with their unbelievable pop gem “Is This How You Feel.” Blue Planet Eyes is their first full album, allowing the group to continue and expand on their catchy singles and EPs. The star is still lead vocalist Isabella Manfredi. Her performances are passionate and push the pop songs to a higher place every time.

With more room to work (10 songs here, double the number of the Is This How You Feel EP), we get to hear slightly slower-tempo, dreamy selections from The Preatures. Songs like the title track, “Two Tone Melody,”  and “Business, Yeah” are great mood pieces without being boring (or self-serving) . The balance between the tightly wound power-pop and these quiet picks offers rewarding depth. (Also helpful? “Is This How You Feel” shows up for another go-around, and is still spectacular.)

05. Run the Jewels 2 by Run the Jewels – Confession: I missed the first Run the Jewels album because I’m a loser. I’m lucky I didn’t miss the sequel. Enter the most enjoyable, exciting rap record I’ve heard.

Before considering the rappers, a brief detour: the production, the underlying music feels like an alternate universe TV on the Radio. On paper, it’s a strange inheritor of such a style. In practice, it’s a remarkable achievement. RTJ2 is a weaving, bobbing, grimy, and superbly confident statement that sounds like nothing else today.

Now, the stars of the show: I’ve already expressed how much I enjoy El-P’s delivery, and the addition of Killer Mike makes for an incredible combination. Each artist punches through their incredible wordplay with energy and urgency. The style is supported with verbal substance, both playful devices (bouncing rhymes, dizzying alliteration) and furious social commentary. I imagine this would be potent separate of all considerations. Married to the powerful sonic background, RTJ2 is an unforgettable record.

04. To Be Kind by Swans – Two hours of dark, ferocious composition doesn’t necessarily scream “enthralling” but here we are. To Be Kind is an enormous effort, full of long, slowly building and undulating songs. Tracks are littered with these runs where the group will find a groove and let the whole thing sit in its own juices. Rather than reaching a glazed-eye jam band state, the foreboding bass and skittering guitars help promote a sense of dread.

The peak moments of To Be Kind are disparate and (of course) can appear in the very same song. The first type: quiet, desolate places. Swans can do full volume roar quite well, and they create powerful contrast when allowing soft (still-harrowing) segments to begin. The second: Michael Gira, in maniacal mode. That can take on many different guises (barking, yelling, growling, spouting off) and they’re all furious fun.

To Be Kind requires a serious time and concentration investment. And it’s well worth the effort. It’s a phenomenal ride.

Brill Bruisers

03. Brill Bruisers by The New Pornographers – The New Pornographers tend to get a lot of press from their “supergroup” status. This blurb took only 13 words to bring it up. Lost in all the external personality management is the core achievement of the band: exceptional pop music. Brill Bruisers doesn’t quite reach the heights of their greatest work (Twin Cinema), but that’s hardly a negative comment (you don’t dislike Abbey Road for not being Revolver).

The band is in top form, opening with one of their single greatest songs and continuing to develop from there. Wonderful vocal harmonies allow interplay between the famous individuals and manage a tight cohesion almost every time. Keith Law hinted at a near-Fleetwood Mac style on guitars, but I think the idea is apt for much of the album. For me, the main reason to love Brill Bruisers? Carl Newman. While Neko Case and Dan Bejar have become bigger personalities outside the New Pornos, it’s de facto leader Newman with the starring role on the best tracks (the title track, “Dancehall Domine,” “Fantasy Fools”) and his voice finds a satisfying balance between comfortable and exciting.

Atlas

02. Atlas by Real Estate – Sad, deeply sad music can be rough to dig into. Repeated listens pull off more bandaids, reveal more bruised soulful sounds. Real Estate pull off a remarkable balancing act throughout their third album, delivering devastating messages wrapped inside shimmering, beautiful mid-tempo guitar tunes. The layers of laid-back, ringing instrumentation are a seductive gateway. It’s a simplified version of Veckatimest-type beautiful and you’ll fall right into the timeless sound.

And that’s where they spring the trap as you fall into the deep end. “I don’t want to die, lonely and uptight,” sings Martin Courtney on “Crime,” delivering the line without any whiny pretense or cheesy insincerity. The real gut kick happens as he begs immediately after, “Stay with me.” The terrifying loneliness continues. On “Horizon,” the remark is very simple, “Just over the horizon, that’s where I always think you’ll be.” Even the gorgeous lead single is completely immersed in rejection and isolation. The singer asks, “Am I making any sense to you?” Alas, the love interest is “too many miles away.”

It’s all devastating, perfect and quiet guitar rock. Atlas is carefully designed, beautifully executed, exceptionally sad, and an altogether wonderful record.

They Want My Soul

01. They Want My Soul by Spoon – Spoon are not flashy innovators like Radiohead. They are not guitar gods like Jack White. They are not moody brooders like The National. They haven’t been and probably won’t be a catalyst like The Strokes. It’s hard to imagine them hitting anthemic levels like Arcade Fire.

Instead, they are something much more. They are quite simply the very best band

They Want My Soul is the eighth album since Spoon have been great (which is to say, always), and the sixth since achieving a near-untouchable status. You’ll get this with every Spoon recap and it’s worth repeating: this Austin band has been on an incredible high since Girls Can Tell in 2001. It’s unprecedented and insane.

Curiously, it is this same consistency that might keep They Want My Soul away from the top of many year-end lists. Potential questions arise: is this better than Kill the Moonlight (oft-cited as the very best of Spoon)? Is this better than the pop-punch of Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga? The (supposed and inaccurate) jump from the (extremely underrated) Transference could help. The reality is that this Spoon will probably be forgotten because of all the other Spoon.

I’m not going to bother ranking Soul in the Spoon oeuvre because that’s not the goal here. Instead, I’m ranking it against the rest of 2014. It’s the very best.

Admittedly, that’s a tricky evaluation for me because sometime in the last decade Spoon became my favorite band. The key is that the Spoon sound is the perfect distillation of all that I want in rock music. Memorable melodies are given backbone by deceptively complex rhythm. Guitars are given just enough distortion to be gritty without losing their ring. Lyrics are specific enough to have depth and delivered by rock’s greatest vocalist.

They Want My Soul continues this tradition of excellence, each song pushing out in ever-so-slightly new directions. You’ll love the stomping confidence of “Rent I Pay.” Shocking guitar fireworks highlight “Knock Knock Knock.” Urgent romanticism leads in “New York Kiss.” You’ve already heard about super-single “Do You” and synth-first pick “Inside Out.”

The Spoon sound is the victor because it is intact yet again. It is just as vital in 2014 as it has been all along. It is the best album of the year.

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