Best of, Music

Best of 2014: Albums, #50-31

Rankings are a little bit arbitrary, and plenty of good albums came out this year that will sadly not end up on this list, but we hope that, like all good year-end lists do, this one will encourage you to check out things you might have missed, skipped over, or generally slept on. Or maybe it will make you reconsider something you didn’t like at first listen. Regardless, we hope it will make for an interesting conversation, and would love to hear what albums you dug the most this year.

50. Nouns – still

nouns- still

Still, the second album by Arkansas outfit Nouns, is hard to listen to. That’s not because of its lo-fi production or penchant for switching between disparate genre references, from post-rock to emo to post-punk to metal. Those elements are integral to the singular experience the album offers, but they’re not nearly as challenging as the lyrical content. The album starts with the lyric “I was raped at fourteen” and ends with an adaptation of the note band mastermind Hunter Clifton Mann wrote before a suicide attempt in February; the songs in between delve into the immense darkness of mental illness with only a few stray rays of positivity as guidance, all written from the perspective of four of Mann’s alternate personalities. That makes Still all the more rewarding, though, as it’s rare to see an album so painfully soul-baring. Dark as it is, Still is also a joy to listen to, smartly written with hooks delivered in an Isaac Brock-like fervor. Even in the midst of the emo revival, it seems unlikely that Nouns will draw a huge following; look instead for Still to be a cult classic in 25 years. – Jack Evans

49. Protomartyr – Under Color of Official Right

protomartyr

My prediction is that someday, people will be asking you to name five Protomartyr songs so that you are allowed to wear that shirt you bought. Year after year, the post-punk map laid out by Joy Division has never failed us: droning vocals, walking-marathon basslines, and a drummer that has inhuman stamina. Protomartyr checking off everything on this list without tedious. Hailing from Detroit, the band holds a grip on the grim and gothic style that reigns in the city’s music scene, combining that with a hopeful and anarchic spirit.- Collin Dall

48. Ratking – So It Goes

ratking

Ratking are truly unlike anything else. From the drop of their breakthrough EP in 2012, this has been the case. To understand Ratking is to understand the “Brooklyn Renaissance” and present-day New York. So It Goes is nothing if not an argument, a dismissal of the current values hip-hop seems to hold, replacing it completely with a new and vibrant form. So It Goes flows viciously and aggressively, as frontman Wiki never ceases to demonstrate his fluency with a relentless, sometimes indecipherable style of rapping. This is all delivered over instrumentals that can barely be called beats: walls of chaotic sound, layers upon layers of unidentifiable samples coupled with grooves that force you to bob your head at some points and mosh in others. Hak is to Wiki as El-P is to Killer Mike, as he always enters slowly and relies on punchlines and the sultry nature of his voice. It’s a recipe that, on paper, may seem like it doesn’t work, but Ratking are nothing if not complimentary. They have a shared vision, and though they approach it in different ways, it all comes together to make something beautiful. So It Goes is absolutely covered with different elements, much like a wall covered in graffiti. Killer features, enticing hooks, stories of an alternate mode of education, commentary on underground social life, Vonnegut references, and sound collages come together to create this portrait. And that’s truly what the album is, a portrait of New York life. But it’s likely that this portrait is closer to de Kooning than Rembrandt. It is about youth. It is about the streets. It is about rebirth. Ratking have completely rejected all prior conceptions of New York hip-hop, and yet this is the most New York album to come out in years. Ratking have a message, a call to action. Forget what you know about art and reflect on what you’ve experienced instead. That’s where the art is. “Don’t wear your honor like armour / that shit’ll wear you down / Don’t let what life taught you taunt you / embrace it now / Whether it’s drawing, recording, whatever makes you proud / Let’s not play around / amazing how you made it out.” – Elijah Fosl

47. The Hotelier – Home, Like Noplace Is There

hotelier

The Hotelier give us a much-needed break from the self-indulgence of most modern emo acts by focusing on complex and effective songwriting. Home, Like Noplace Is There features stunning dual vocals from members Christian Holden and Chris Hoffman, which the rest of the band perfectly compliments. This record shows almost unbelievable growth from their previous album, It Never Goes Out. The aforementioned album was a decent pop-punk record in its own right, but it pales in comparison to what the band can now create. Lyrically, this album is not just bearable (a surprising contrast from the awful lyrical standard that emo has set itself), but incredibly well-written and moving. “Housebroken” in particular has some of the best lyrics I’ve heard in a very long time, regardless of genre. Overall, The Hotelier have put out an extremely potent and powerful record that contains immaculate songwriting and incredible vocal work. If there were any future-classic emo releases this year, Home, Like Noplace Is There would rank among them. – John O’Brien

46. Ariana Grande –  My Everything

ariana grande

What a leap it was to go from being a Nickelodeon star to being featured on a song with Jessie J and Nicki Minaj. Not to mention pairing up with The Weeknd, who is practically incapable of making a song that isn’t sex. Honestly, it’s the definition of “glo’d up.” Ariana Grande hardly looks old enough for the level of success she’s reached, and I haven’t the slightest clue how her petite frame can house such enormous pipes, but with My Everything, she proves that she’s already singing laps around stars who have been recording pop songs for years. Grande’s songs are infectious, sweet but with a street sensibility, making it challenging to deem her R&B or pop. It doesn’t matter anyway, because no matter what category she’s put in, she’s won. – Lindsay Temple

45. Olive Drab – The Big Sleep

olive drab

During this period of emo revival, wherever it may stand when you read this, bands have always seemed to lose hold of what they worship. Sacrificing emotion for energy, post-2010 emo songs only tend to focus on how loudly and out-of-tune the lead singer can wail and how hard the drummer can hit his kit. The emotion encapsulated in this year’s Olive Drab record is exactly what’s expressed in the band’s name: drab, depressing, bleak and sad. It’s a sad-sounding record all together. Every song reads from it’s own diary entry without feeling preachy or whiny. After lyrics like “I can’t do anything right” or “I’ll show you where I became this fucking awful human being I am,” you’ll laugh to yourself. It’s a record served to you on a rusty platter with a guilty smile and a shrug. I feel like this guy needs to apologize to himself after each short-lived, powerless song is over. – Collin Dall

44. The War on Drugs – Lost in the Dream

war on drugs

In the winter of 1996 I achieved clairvoyance. For a brief moment, my path appeared out in front of me, colorful and brilliant like runway lights. I slid down my grandparents’ basement stairs one at a time and waddled around, peering at the mass of blue wood and metal sitting in the corner. I struggled to chew real food back then, yet somehow I scaled up onto my grandfather’s throne of drums and started curiously whacking everything I could reach. Little gears were set in motion that day. Hours were spent in that frosty, unheated basement on the banks of the Shiawassee, trying to comprehend rhythm as the circulation in my extremities slowly retreated. My grandfather, a tough-like-iron lumberjack’s son, used to play classic rock cassette tapes and watch me slowly work out the cyclical relationship between hi-hat, kick and snare. There’s nothing but beautiful, fond memories from that cinderblock bunker. My memories look like grainy home movies now, windows frosted and translucent from the sub-zero Decembers. I only have the vaguest notion of what songs I played to, but I remember the searing guitar leads, the driving bass with vocals pristine and analog. But when I think about it these days, I can only picture that innocent blonde-haired toddler listening to The War on Drugs’ Lost In The Dream. Lots of things have changed in the almost two decades since. The clairvoyance has long since gone, leaving doubt and uncertainty in its place. My hair has turned dark and curly, almost pubic in the southern humidity. Next week, I’m going back to that basement for the first time in many years. I’m going to go smile at my own ghost. I’ll show that starry-eyed kid the music of the future that so perfectly encapsulated the days he spent behind those drums. It’ll be the arbiter that bridges the gap between us. It’ll be the War on Drugs. – Nick Kivi

43. Aphex Twin – Syro

FINAL MASTER SYRO DIGIPAK.indd

Announced via blimps, graffiti, and cryptic deep web links, Aphex Twin’s Syro, the UK electronic pioneer’s first album in 13 years, marks a long-awaited comeback for Richard D. James. The album’s complex, bubbling techno proved without a doubt that James’ eclectic musical mind and knack for constructing unique and emotive electronic compositions has never been in better shape. From the warped vocal harmonies and simmering percussive sounds of single “minipops 67 [120.2]” to the quiet piano reflections of “aisatsana,” Syro subjects listeners to less of the characteristic harsh sonic territory of Aphex Twin past, showcasing a more varied and accessible sound, all without losing any of James’ trademark distorted quirks. – Will Coe

42. Azealia Banks – Broke With Expensive Taste

azealia banks

“My attitude is bitchy, but you already knew that,” is both the best line in “Chasing Time” and the thesis of Azealia Bank’s album Broke With Expensive Taste. In the three years since the release of her infectious single “212,” Azealia Banks has become far more famous for her online antics than for her body of musical work. However, Banks refuses to be ashamed of her infamous reputation; rather, she embraces it. BWET builds on Banks’ wild persona to create elaborate tracks, the backstories of which Banks elaborated on via Twitter. The standout track is “Ice Princess,” which Banks describes as “the story of how I met your man in the summer, stole him by September, and moved into the mansion in December.” BWET shines due to Banks’ creativity, as she explores several different genres all through the lens of 90s-inspired house. Whether she’s singing in Spanish about controlling her own fate on (“Gimme a Chance”) or detailing her plan to fuck your girlfriend on (“212” and “BBD”), Azealia Banks has shifted from bitchy to bad bitch.Erica Gibson

41. Black Milk – If There’s A Hell Below

black milk

Black Milk, the stage name of Detroit hip-hop producer and MC Curtis Cross, apparently likes to keep himself busy; in the span of just over a year, he has released two full-length albums and an EP. This year’s If There’s A Hell Below occupied the same rank on my personal year-end list as his release last year, No Poison, No Paradise, did, but each of Cross’ releases seem to get better. In the past, it was clear he was a better producer than rapper, but If There’s A Hell Below shows that he finally might have found the perfect balance. If the beat is simple, his rapping is complicated; if the beat is complicated, he keeps the rapping to a minimum. Common themes across all of Cross’ albums include general life in Detroit and the struggle of growing up in a low-income family. The title of the album, which comes from Curtis Mayfield’s “(Don’t Worry) If There’s A Hell Below, We’re All Going To Go,” provides a thesis for it. Cross, like Mayfield, wants to show how we treat each other prompts the moral degradation of society.Ethan Copeland

40. Wye Oak- Shriek

wye oak

I can see into the future. I’m 29, ten years older than I am now. I live in Chicago. I decided not to move to New York City, as that’s too cliche. My apartment has exposed brick walls and enormous windows, and the light bill is usually low since my roommates and I never turn our lamps from Ikea until after the sun sets. Plus, we live such fun, exciting lives that we’re rarely home to begin with. In fact, just last night I was at a Wye Oak show. One of my roommates’ best friends had tickets, but she had to fly out to London with Kelela on short notice. She’s her personal assistant. Cool, right? I listened to Wye Oak when I was younger, but I’d almost completely forgotten about their existence, especially their 2014 release Shriek. Damn, that was ten years ago. It was as fun as I remembered, maybe even more so. Jenn Wasner’s voice somehow sounded even warmer live. Afterwards, I scooted my way backstage so I could arrange an interview with Andy Stack (he’s soon releasing his second album from his shoegaze solo project) for my music publication. I couldn’t talk for long though, since a friend a couple blocks down needed my help photographing models for her lookbook. I grabbed a few snacks from the convenience store and speed-walked to the studio, bag of candy in one hand, busted-up iPhone in the other. I arrived late, and my friend was a wreck. I put my things down, shoveled a couple handfuls of M&M’s into my mouth, plugged my phone into the stereo in the hopes that Wye Oak’s “Glory” would put my stressed friend at ease, and got to work. Within what seemed like seconds, her spirits lifted, the models were cooperating, and the photos seemed to take themselves. We floated around the room, humming, reflecting, and smiling. By the end of the night, my friend was glowing, and we walked home hand-in-hand discussing the small party I was having for my 30th birthday in a few weeks. “Hey, do you think I can put a little playlist together for that?” she said sleepily. “I was thinking I would put Shriek on it. What a perfect record.” – Lindsay Temple

39. Marissa Nadler – July

marissa nadler

In Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, there’s a stretch of road on M-28 called the Seney Stretch. There are no turns, no hills, and no towns. It’s a 25 mile vector through the Great Manistique Swamp. It’s barren and beautiful, the equivalent to automotive meditation. Marissa Nadler’s July plays out as such; it moves slowly with no desired destination. But don’t mistake July for a stagnant album. It most definitely moves, twisting and turning like a shadow. For a haunting 46 minutes, Nadler’s voice settles like a fog on listeners’ minds. In “1923,” Nadler sings “I call to you from another century / To see you, the world had been kind and sweet.” With that timeless voice, I’m not sure if she’s in 2014 or 1814. July at heart is a road album, just not one for highways. There is too much purpose in highways. This album beckons those strange, surreal state roads you can lose yourself in. – Nick Kivi

38. Pallbearer – Foundations of Burden

pallbearer

If their name or the title of their debut album, Sorrow & Extinction, didn’t make it clear enough, Pallbearer is a band preoccupied with death. If their early output didn’t solidify their musical prowess, then Foundations of Burden, their latest release, does. It’s an album that sounds like death, where the figures trudge cloaked in darkness and heavy-footed, where the guitar riffs alternate between dropping like monolithic stone slabs and soaring like they’re transcending the earthly realm. It’s no dreary affair, though, nor is it a total dirge. Unlike a lot of bands that deal with such morbid subject matter, Pallbearer view it from all sides; there’s some of the classically funereal approach, but there’s also a respect for the void, and even, at times, a slight smile toward it, as any mention of the physical world is usually one of crumbling structures and bounties of blood. Also unlike a lot of other bands, the musical reflection isn’t one of immense sorrow or unrelenting aggression – even when it crushes, Foundations of Burden is often elegant and even catchy. It’s a stare into the abyss that produces a beautiful sound. – Jack Evans

37. Baths – Ocean Death EP

baths

Will Wiesenfeld’s plunge into darkness continues with his newest EP, coming off the heels of the similarly bleak Obsidian. The title track is the aural equivalent of finding an ancient relic in the deep sea, with heavily-affected vocals that give the song an eerie, unsettling feel making up most of its instrumentation. Following this macabre introduction, Baths steps back into territory similar to that of Obsidian, which is to say that the next four tracks are some of the most emotional and well-produced electronic songs made all year. Wiesenfeld is an open book, airing out his sorrowful grievances for all to hear. Baths has publicly said that his next record will be much happier, making Ocean Death just as much of an artistic statement as an EP. “Like an oak may come and go, in an eon the world will yawn. Yawn and move on.” – John O’Brien

36. Ariel Pink – pom pom

ariel pink

In his review of pom pom, Jeff Weiss said it best: “If you hate Ariel Pink, nothing in this review can possibly alter your opinion.” I still cannot for the life of me figure out how to feel about Pink. I’ve flip-flopped more on the issue than a Romney campaign (fewer political jokes, duly noted). 2014 has been an important year for the “art vs. artist” debate and undoubtedly, Ariel Pink has given firepower for both sides. What’s much harder to argue is that pom pom isn’t the clearest distillation of Pink’s oddball 70’s fringe-pop, a style he’s honed over the past 20 years. Songs like “Black Ballerina” and “White Freckles” are earworms to the point of surgical removal. Who else could make a demented midsong strip club sketch and a hook of “elevators, manufacturers” into one of the catchiest songs of 2014? Ariel Pink dug himself into an almost inescapable hole leading up to pom pom. Lucky for him, it’s good enough to keep people listening. – Nick Kivi

35. Ryan Hemsworth – Alone For The First Time

ryan hemsworth

Ryan Hemsworth is probably one of the new defining faces of electronic music. Building on an immense catalog of remixes, from the likes of Mr. MFN eXquire, Beyonce, Lorde, and everyone in-between, Alone For The First Time is only Hemsworth’s second studio album. The album lacks much lyrical content, but Hemsworth is concise with words. The guest vocalists talk about the process and aftermath of breaking off relationships, hence the title of the album. Hemsworth really finds more importance in the music, as he himself does not sing. The album spans a brief half-hour, but Hemsworth manages to pacs in many different sounds to show his complete control over the music-making process.Ethan Copeland

34. SisyphusSisyphus

sisyphus

If Kanye West’s 2013 album Yeezus was a chorus of computers crashing, than Sisyphus is the sound of a MacBook starting up. In many ways, the two albums are reflections of each other, both diving deep into the many ways that technology and substances affect our personal relationships. The Sisyphus album, unlike Yeezus, tackles the subject in a considerably lighter manner. The latest collaboration between Sufjan Stevens, producer Son Lux, and rapper Serengeti, who previously worked together under the name s / s / s, Sisyphus takes place in an altered and ever-changing world of internet porn, booty calls, and alcohol. But it doesn’t mourn the digital turn our physical world has taken; it recognizes that there are both negative and positives to the changes our society is currently undergoing. The group blends perfectly together, as Sufjan’s sensitive vocals and Serengeti’s rapping, informed by a sense of longing, passion, and regret, provide a powerful foil to Son Lux’s production, an inhuman soundtrack constructed out of ticks, pops, and computer error messages. It’s the bridging of the digital and the physical, just with a distinctly human heart. – Nathan Smith

33. Iceage – Plowing Into the Field of Love

iceage

The teeth of Nick Cave and Wire have sunk themselves into Danish punk band Iceage on their latest release, Plowing Into the Field of Love. Every track here makes you want to stomp around in a field of dust, with country punk riffs running rampant. Iceage hasn’t lost their dissonant style, and frontman Elias Rønnenfelt still slurs and spits his way through the record, but the band’s new style is a welcome surprise. Shades of old Iceage come through on “Cimmerean Shade” and “Forever,” but the addition of horns and additional percussion give these songs new life. The closing two songs have shades of post-punk legends Wire, an obvious influence for the band. Iceage is still a young band, but they appear to mature with each release. – Alex DePompei

32. Kishi Bashi – Lighght

kishi bashi

Sometimes I think the only reason Kishi Bashi hasn’t exploded on a universal scale is because he’s too goddamn nice. There is no reason hidden in string theory or quantum physics that can properly explain this anomaly. Kishi Bashi might just be the anti-Ariel Pink. Lighght is pure pop perfection, a cascade of musical fireworks that went far too under the music press’ radar this year. “The Ballad of Mr. Steak” and “Once Upon a Lucid Dream (In Afrikaans)” have enough embedded hooks and melodies for a grad school class. In a great year for pop music, the most disappointing thing about Kishi Bashi was that we didn’t hear his name more often. When people look back on 2014, hopefully hindsight will correct this error and Lighght will get what it deserved. – Nick Kivi

31. Busdriver – Perfect Hair

busdriver

The world’s most slept-on rapper delivers the year’s most slept-on rap album. Largely self-produced, Busdriver’s 8th solo album is one of his biggest yet, which is quite the feat for any established musician. Perfect Hair proves that Driver has more up his sleeve than the tongue-tied lighting-fast rapping of “Imaginary Places,” his claim to fame. It’s been 12 years since the release of that track, and Busdriver has spent that time refining his ability as an artist. Unlike many rappers who came out during the era he did, Busdriver did not pigeonhole himself into a dead-end niche, but instead kept himself open and active in the rap community, gladly collaborating with more recent rappers like Open Mike Eagle and the even newer Milo. This type of activity, paired with Driver’s general open-mindedness, leads to output that is consistently of high quality, and Perfect Hair is absolutely top-tier. This record has some of the weirdest and wonkiest production on any rap album from this year, and Busdriver ducks and weaves through the abstract beats like he was born to do it. With Perfect Hair, Driver again proves himself to be one of the most adept rappers out right now. – John O’Brien

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3 thoughts on “Best of 2014: Albums, #50-31

  1. Pingback: Best of 2014: Albums, #30-#11 | SMASH CUT MAGAZINE

  2. Pingback: Best of 2014: Albums- The Top 10 | SMASH CUT MAGAZINE

  3. Pingback: Review: Broke with Expensive Taste | Erica C. GIbson

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