There are always albums we loved that don’t make it onto our year-end lists, but that doesn’t mean they’re any less good. Here are a few of our favorite albums from 2014 that didn’t make it onto the big list.
Frontier Ruckus – Sitcom Afterlife
Alt-folk, folk-rock, alt-country or whatever-hyphenated-subgenre you call it isn’t exactly blowing up charts right now. Now that we’re a few years into the Age of Mumford, most of us have forlornly buried our banjos and singing saws in the backyard. Sure, I’m jaded, but hell, at this point I’d even settle for a year of Nissan commercials without choruses of “Hey!” and “Ho!”. No one is blaming you for putting away your Avett Brothers t-shirt in 2015, but if you could indulge me for a second, please go listen to Frontier Ruckus’ Sitcom Afterlife.
Frontier Ruckus has been subversively releasing classic album after classic album for half a decade now with striking talent and unbridled ambition (not always the first compliments when you think of folk music in 2015). They’ve thrown their crosshairs at so many genres that even calling it folk seems an injustice. Sitcom Afterlife explores 90’s rock and pop with the hazy nostalgia that master lyricist Matt Milia is finally getting due credit for. The banjos, synths, horns, saws and harmonies all ring as brilliantly as they did on Deadmalls and Nightfalls, now sharper and more refined. Frontier Ruckus has been one of the least-definable bands in a genre that may have gone stale for many. If you need your faith restored, might I recommend Sitcom Afterlife? – Nick Kivi
Porter Robinson – Worlds
It’s 2010 – picture a blonde, naïve high school freshman slightly bobbing his head at 140bpm to Skrillex’s Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites. That was me discovering modern EDM. However, dubstep (yes, you remember it) was only the very beginning to a still-ongoing journey in my musical development. Being a young whipper-snapper with way too much energy, I craved the catchy intros, the long build-ups, and the huge drops – everyone did. Following this musical formula, Porter Robinson released his first single, “Say My Name,” at the tender age of 19. It was a bangin’, four-on-the-floor dance song that combined elements of trance with aspects of the newfound “bass drop” culture. The song immediately went number one on the popular EDM website Beatport, attracting the eyes of Skrillex and his label OWSLA. After signing a deal, Robinson released the eleven-song EP Spitfire in 2011, which went number one on the iTunes Dance chart and Beatport’s overall chart (crashing Beatport’s servers upon release). It was a wub-wub, unce-unce EP that showcased Robinson’s versatility as an extremely young bedroom producer. To me, Porter’s sounds have always been unique, even if they still fall into the same formulas as other producers. He made (and still makes) a point to create completely original tracks, regardless if club-goers enjoy them or not.
After Spitfire came a huge turning point in Robinson’s career. The mission: create something beautiful. The product: “Language.” This melodic masterpiece still held onto the formula, but it was the first sign that Robinson yearned for something deeper. Finally, the transition completed itself with his latest album, Worlds. Forget the drops; this is an album heard from the heart, not the ears. A far cry from his previous work, Worlds takes influence from Japanese anime, video games, and fiction, hitting home hard for anyone who grew up around a Nintendo 64. “Sad Machine,” for instance, takes me on a nostalgic journey harking back to the days of leading Mario around Princess Peach’s Castle courtyard. In the song, Robinson himself sings along with a Vocaloid (a computerized human voice), symbolizing the human connection to machines and the fictional “worlds” that we unintentionally create when immersing ourselves in fictional media. That’s the point of the whole album. As listeners, we can place characters that we know into the template that Worlds gives us.
Being a producer myself, the production of Worlds excites me the most. Robinson went for a more analogue feel that still baffles listeners. The sound is raw and harsh, yet it maintains perfect execution. My favorite track, “Flicker,” utilizes near-deafening percussion to contain monstrous synthesizers. Not to mention the song structures come in all shapes and sizes. “Flicker” is progressive while “Lionhearted” sounds like a pumping radio hit that could be included in an episode of Miami Vice. Even in the more pop tunes one may still hear sprinklings of Japanese anime or video-game-influenced sounds. Robinson occasionally uses MIDI harps and pan flutes, sounds that scream Zelda.
Many critics claim that Worlds is simply a melting pot of already established electro-pop sounds from the likes of Passion Pit and M83, and they’re not completely wrong. It’s undoubtedly true that Robinson took influence from these artists; however, he holds a totally different fan base. Because of his past work, Robinson is effectively bridging the gap for EDM fans to dive into a new sound-scape that they may be unfamiliar with. After Worlds, listeners may be inclined check out more alternative electronic acts. Watching Porter mature alongside his music has been an incredible adventure and Worlds is the perfect icing on the cake. I truly cannot wait for whatever he does next. – Parker Dodson
Roly Porter – Life Cycle of a Massive Star
This is the music of creation. It swells. It pulses. It burns. It grows to unbelievable intensity and then explodes in a wale of static and tones. It is the sound of destruction beginning life anew. This is Life Cycle of a Massive Star. Artist Roly Porter, formerly of dubstep duo Vex’d, has somehow released an album that accurately represents the abstract and unknowable subject of its title. How do I know that? It scares the living shit out of me. I’ve never listened to music that is as simultaneously intense and beautiful as Life Cycle of a Massive Star. This is ambient music at its finest, truly delivering sounds that overpower the senses and fill you with life. Porter uses harsh, pulsing bass and static to suggest the chaos of creation, and he uses hints of orchestra to give the whole thing a sense of majesty. He tackles human concerns of mortality and insignificance perfectly. No words, just the inarticulate tones of fear. – Kai Perrignon
SB the Moor – Opus 3- A Man Atop the Tower
2014 was a fantastic year for, in the words of Open Mike Eagle’s first album, unapologetic art rap. With Hellfyre Club and the work of Sub Pop signees like Shabazz Palaces and Clipping., rap artists seem increasingly unafraid to make work that is distinctly artistic in its intent. Although entering into the world with less attention than the examples I offered previously, SB the Moor’s latest release, Opus 3- A Man Atop the Tower, makes a strong case for his own placement among those collectives and groups. In some ways, SB the Moor’s most recent album could be described as chamber rap, both for its distinctly operatic nature and the breadth and scope of sounds he employs. From twirling organs and piano chords to chip-tune choirs to pop melodies, no musical strand is too obscure, out-of-reach, or unexpected for SB the Moor. His lyrics are delivered with a quick poignancy, and the way they shift from sing-song choruses to marathons-of-the-mouth reflects the ever-changing pace of the instrumentation. There might be rappers doing work similar to SB the Moor, but the tower he sits atop is wholly original and all his own.
Xerxes – Collision Blonde
The first time I heard Xerxes was in June when they played a house show in Knoxville with a stacked lineup that also included Chicago alt-rock outfit Kittyhawk and Nashville emo-revivalists Free Throw. All three of those bands released excellent records this year, but Collision Blonde, the second album by the Louisville-based four-piece, may well have been my favorite of the three. It’s a collection of songs that are short and punchy but textural, with front-man Calvin Philley weaving narratives of turbulent romances, stark violence, and substance dependency between the ringing guitars, ultimately coming off as a sort of meeting of Joy Division and La Dispute. For whatever reason, their unique sound didn’t generate much critical buzz, nor did their spot on major punk label No Sleep or co-signs from NPR. That’s a shame, for one because Xerxes is one of the best live bands around, and for another because Collision Blonde gets better and better with every listen. It’s the kind of album that doesn’t sound like anything else happening now but still feels very at home in 2014. In that way, and in their affinity for loud noises, Xerxes seem like contemporaries of bands like Deafheaven and Perfect Pussy, albeit ones that traffic in different specifics of aggressive music than either of those bands. Collision Blonde doesn’t reach the level of the best output from those acts, but it could be a significant step in making Xerxes one of the premier bands in modern hardcore. – Jack Evans