Record Geek Heaven’s Favorite Albums of 2014

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This year was a pretty crazy one for me, personally. I put out three albums with three different bands, and started preparing for my biggest adventure yet – moving to China with the love of my life. We are scheduled to leave on January 1st. Literally and figuratively, 2015 will be a whole new year.

Musically, 2014 was kind of strange. Most things just kind of floated in the ether – my reaction a lot of times would be “this isn’t bad, and it’s not that it isn’t good, but it’s just kind of….THERE.” On the flip side, there were a few albums that have already become classics in their own right, complete head-turners that set new examples for what a record could be. I thought about making this just a top ten list, but even if a few of these records are flawed, there is enough good (even great) about them to make them of note. I hope you find something you enjoy. Happy holidays and music hunting to all!

Side One Dummy

Side One Dummy

20. Andrew Jackson JihadChristmas Island


I’m not normally into freak folk or folk punk or whatever Andrew Jackson Jihad describes themselves as, but Sean Bonnette’s wickedly funny and inventive lyrics are what sucked me into this album. He is unforgiving about lobbing disturbing imagery at your brain, and it makes for such a fun listen. Whether it’s a room full of corpses with Nikes on their feet, or a coffin full of dead orphans, or a bright-red dog’s asshole shitting into the evening sky, Bonnette’s visions seem at once completely revolting and uniquely poetic, with not a lot of space in between. The songwriting is pretty traditional, but at times can hit a sort of ghostly plane. And of course, throughout the record, Bonnette’s mental-illness inspired musings help to make Christmas Island an other-worldly affair.

Touch and Go

Touch and Go

19. ShellacDude Incredible


The return of the engineer’s rock band. Steve Albini, Todd Trainer and Bob Weston have every reason to take themselves seriously. After all, between the three of them, they have probably had something to do with 90% of the most influential rock recordings made in the last 30 years. Fortunately, on Dude Incredible, they don’t completely forget that rock music is mostly about fun. Sure, it’s “fun” in the way Steve Albini describes the word, which usually involves some really dark and disturbing shit. The enthralling “You Came In Me” (which seems to playfully borrow from the band’s favorite Zeppelin tunes) only contains a few lyrics, which are; “’You came in me!’ ‘What’d you think I was gonna do? That’s why I’m fuckin’ you.’” It’s that same lambasting of the sexist/frat boy mentality that Albini has always used as his muse; which is fine, because it’s a mentality that still very much deserves a good lambasting or fifty.

Mom + Pop

Mom + Pop

18. Tokyo Police ClubForcefield


Toronto’s Tokyo Police Club really, REALLY want to be huge, and it’s so obvious that it’s kind of unsettling. But hey, if a band exercises their desperation while managing to churn out some of their best stuff, I can’t really complain. On Forcefield, there are at least three spots where you can just TELL they are trying for a hit. The most excruciating example is the first single “Hot Tonight”, which sounds like a slightly more tolerable “Party in the USA”. Fortunately, every other song is a home run – even “Toy Guns” and its echoes of “Pumped Up Kicks” offer way more charm than the latter. The three-part, 9-minute “Argentina” kicks off the album courageously, providing a suite of irresistibly intertwining guitar and synth lines that perfectly contrast David Monk’s curious, childlike vocal lines. Despite the fact that some of it has an overtly manufactured feel, Forcefield has plenty to enjoy.

Merge

Merge

17. HospitalityTrouble


Hospitality’s self-titled debut introduced Amber Papini as a talented and quirky songwriter, but her work on Trouble gives her a much-needed air of mystery. After the debut, I was expecting this album to be another quaint little slab of power-pop influenced indie twee stuff. Instead, it gets into some dark and downright strange territory for a band everyone was ready to pigeonhole as cute and innocent. These songs find the band treading into some stark, new wave style waters, while Papini does her best to release her inner Chrissie Hynde. The unique, syncopated rhythms and unravelling guitars of “I Miss Your Bones” make it one of the year’s must-hear songs.

Xtra Mile

Xtra Mile

16. Cheap GirlsFamous Graves


Cheap Girls are the most refreshingly unpretentious rock band working today, and man, do they work hard. While their early years presented them as somewhat all over the place, relentless touring has shaped them into an unstoppable power trio. Last year’s Giant Orange catapulted them closer to the forefront of the indie rock world than ever before. Famous Graves is simply a continuation – it doesn’t break any new ground for the band, but shows them maintaining their focus on a sound they have carefully carved out for themselves. The straight-ahead, driving 90’s-esque chord changes of “Slow Nod” that kick off the record lays it all out on the table right away – the music of Cheap Girls is an open book. You get just what you hear, but damn is it fun to sing along with.

Secretly Canadian

Secretly Canadian

15. The War on DrugsLost in the Dream


After a breakup, sometimes the most appealing activity is to sit alone and wallow in your own self-pity. Essentially, Lost in the Dream is a soundtrack for this state of being. These aren’t songs as much as they are dreamy, regretful sentiments lost in a wash of pink-clouded musical skylines. Band leader Adam Granduciel has said he was trying to avoid the “conventions of hook” when making this record. Accordingly, there is not a lot about these songs that is traditionally “catchy”. Rather, the music attempts to capture one of those brief moments in time where you simultaneously feel everything and nothing, those little blips of life that silently baffle us all. It’s easy to see why this is the overall Album of the Year, based on most of the already-published year-end lists. Lost in the Dream walks that thin line between singer-songwriter rock and ambient background music (two genres that are currently seeing a renaissance). By fusing these genres, The War on Drugs are essentially combining two huge audiences, and judging by the overwhelming critical acclaim and sold out tours, the strategy has worked wonders. Personally, I am more a fan of the ideas behind this record and its production style than the songs themselves. Many songs are so similar to old Springsteen tunes (the track “Burning” somehow recalls both “Dancing in the Dark” and Rod Stewart’s “Young Turks”), and Granduciel’s singing style is so Dylan-esque that it almost seems imitative. Still, Lost in the Dream is a triumph in many ways.

Domino

Domino

14. Owen PallettIn Conflict


Owen Pallett is one of my favorite people working in music today. Aside from being an insanely talented songwriter who constantly spans the stylistic spectrum, he is seemingly one of the coolest, most genuine artists around. If you are losing faith in the coolness of “celebrities” these days, just read one of Pallett’s interviews. He will help remind you that there are still some sane, normal people doing this stuff simply because they love it immensely. Pallett’s last LP, Heartland, was my number 2 album of 2011. An incredibly ambitious and dense concept album, but filled with some of the most inventive songwriting of the last decade, it’s one of those albums that’s almost impossible to surpass. But, Pallett doesn’t really think like that. He’s not in it to keep us riveted, necessarily. He just wants to make cool records, and he definitely continues that streak with In Conflict. Produced, co-written and co-performed with Brian Eno, the album takes a slight step into more traditional song structures while managing to maintain Pallett’s individuality. It’s not as groundbreaking as Heartland, and not as consistent, but many of the songs are of a similar quality. The title track and “Song for Five and Six” are successful forays into a poppier territory, with Pallett’s trademark violin adding its irresistible spice to make them his own.

Matador

Matador

13. The New PornographersBrill Bruisers


Taking more tips from the Game Theory playbook than ever before, A.C. Newman and co. have produced the most lively, fun and unique album in the New Porn’s catalog. From the moment it kicks off, Brill Bruisers presents a cascade of inventive and impeccably produced baroque pop jams, complete with vocal arrangements that would make Brian Wilson envious. Newman’s songwriting is more consistent than ever, and the vocal and/or songwriting contributions from Neko Case, Kathryn Calder and (especially) Dan Bejar are top notch. As far as bands with the collective mentality go, The New Pornographers seem to have it down to an exact science at this point. They’ve recognized that each member should have a clear role in the group that plays to their strengths, and with how consistent they have been in recent years, it seems not much can get in their way.

Sub Pop

Sub Pop

12. King TuffBlack Moon Spell


The opening guitar riff of the title track of King Tuff’s third album is as perfect of a mission statement as a listener will get from any song that came out in 2014. It sounds like the album in general – raw, rough, in the red, fun, air-guitar-worthy rock and roll music. So, for anyone who has listened to King Tuff in the past – no, nothing has really changed. But did you really want it to? King Tuff’s simple mission to rock is a breath of fresh air in today’s indie community, and on Black Moon Spell, it feels better than ever. The band has continued to master their formula of combining pop melodies with hair-metal-inspired guitar riffs, while especially channeling T. Rex on this collection (even down to the Frankie Vallie inspired background vocals). The songwriting is incredibly consistent, and makes for a really fun rock record that is way too easy to play all the way through.

Domino

Domino

11. Real EstateAtlas


Sometimes, it can be frustrating when a band chooses to stay inside the box they have built for themselves. Other times, you are kind of thankful for it. In the case of Real Estate’s third album, I’m kind of on the fence in that regard. On the one hand, the songs on Atlas are consistently good. On the other hand, it’s my least favorite album by the band, and presents them taking absolutely no steps forward with their sound. But hey, if the songs are good and you find yourself spinning the record over and over again, does all of that even matter? Essentially, the situation I am describing is what happens pretty much any time a band begins to enter the mainstream, and honestly, it could be a lot worse for Real Estate. Though it seems they are catering to what people want, they are obviously trying really hard to keep the quality of their music intact. And really, I have to give it to them – they have more or less succeeded. Atlas is the indie equivalent of the pop album you don’t want to like but can’t help but listen to over and over again. It’s not breaking any new ground, but it’s a damn fine collection of songs.

Memphis Industries

Memphis Industries

10. Paul Smith & Peter BrewisFrozen by Sight
School of LanguageOld Fears


In recent years, the Brewis brothers have made regular appearances on my lists. My favorite album of 2012 was Plumb by their main band, Field Music. This year, brother Peter has been especially busy with two completely different projects. The first to meet the world was the sophomore release by School of Language, which continues the obtuse, unpredictable song structures of Field Music, but with a decidedly funky slant. Old Fears is all at once breathtakingly beautiful and irresistibly dance-y, with brother David providing his trademark, almost Bonham-esque backbeat.

Memphis Industries

Memphis Industries

Frozen by Sight, by comparison, is completely out of left field. A collaboration with Maximo Park singer Paul Smith, the album seems as coldly deliberate and constructed as its blueprint-inspired liner notes. But within the sparse sea of tight string arrangements and punchy drums, some unexpected melodic beauty regularly seeps through the cracks. The contrast of Smith’s purely observational lyrics (taken straight from his tour journals) with Brewis’ brain-twisting arrangements makes for many unexpected surprises.

Epitaph

Epitaph

9. Joyce ManorNever Hungover Again


Joyce Manor’s 2012 sleeper hit Of All Things I Will Soon Grow Tired was a pop punk hodgepodge of sorts – equal parts impeccably produced punk anthems, post punk experimentation, acoustic bedroom recordings, and even an 80’s cover tune thrown in for good measure. After being picked up by Epitaph, it was assumed their follow up album would be a slicker, more mainstream affair. Though this is definitely the case, JM have not lost their sense of fun and unpredictability. The songwriting on Never Hungover Again just as varied, spanning influences ranging from Bad Religion (“In the Army Now”) to The Smiths (“Heated Swimming Pool”) all the way to Guided by Voices (“Schley”). Producer Brett Gurewitz (of Bad Religion) gives the band an uncharacteristic gleam, and it seems he even had some sway over song choice (the very BR-esque “In the Army Now” and the obvious single “Heart Tattoo” sound less like Joyce Manor and more like common Epitaph bands). But overall, Never Hungover Again is a successful attempt by Joyce Manor to develop their sound while carefully expanding their audience.

Xtra Mile

Xtra Mile

8. Against Me!Transgender Dysphoria Blues


One of the most important punk albums of the decade, the 6th album from Against Me! came right at a time when the transgender community was looking for a strong and unshakable voice. Enter Laura Jane Grace. On past AM releases, the voice of Tom Gable sounded so gruff that one could almost get the impression he was trying too hard. And maybe he really was. On Transgender Dysphoria Blues, letting Laura Jane out of her cocoon seems like the best decision anyone could have made. Her voice sounds clear, confident, and capable of carrying any sort of emotional load. “True Trans Soul Rebel” has to be one of the most relevant anthems of recent years, perfectly detailing (with no sentimentality or cheesiness) the experience of not knowing yourself but still doing whatever you can to pull back into the world. It’s specifically about being transgender, but it translates into something that feels universal. At a time when transgender people are fighting harder than ever to get their voices heard, this is exactly what the community needs. Also, almost every song is completely kickass, and all these factors working together make this album feel like a classic already.

Don Giovanni

Don Giovanni

7. Nude Beach77


As I prepare to embark on a new phase in my life by moving to China to teach English for a semester, I couldn’t help but feel Inside Llewen Davis-esque pangs this year as albums from bands like Ex Hex and Nude Beach began to gain prominence. This album, Nude Beach’s third, was especially surprising. These days, the last thing we expect to be released is a double-album of tunes in a classic power pop style, but this bold move is exactly the one Nude Beach have executed. The album is basically a relentless onslaught of jam-influenced power pop, stuffed so full wonderful songs that it’s kind of overwhelming. But the further down the 77 spiral you go, the easier it is to just let yourself fall.

Asian Man

Asian Man

6. Hard GirlsA Thousand Surfaces


Hard Girls’ previous album, 2012’s Isn’t It Worse, was one of my most-played albums of 2014. I had heard it about a year ago, but it didn’t really hit me at the time. I randomly played it early this year and it was like a train bursting through my room. It was a revelation – so punk, even hardcore at times, but with an undeniably poppy slant and amazingly catchy melodies. It was a hybrid that made complete sense to me. A Thousand Surfaces shows Hard Girls taking a slightly darker path musically, and even though the album takes a bit longer to sink in than their previous one, the result is no less rewarding. The ninja-chop riffage of songs like “Sign on the Dune” and “996 Tears” beg to be played repeatedly, while slower, more pummeling tunes like “Die Slow” begin to open up a whole new world of possibilities for the band.

Captured Tracks

Captured Tracks

5. Mac DemarcoSalad Days


“As I’m getting older, chip upon my shoulder / Write another year off and kindly resign.” These lyrics from the eponymous opening track of Salad Days paint a picture of Mac Demarco as a lazy, spoiled brat who hasn’t anticipated the amount of work necessary to make his own living. The entirety of Salad Days seems to support this attitude, but oddly enough, it just kind of makes the whole experience better. Rarely do we get such an honest reflection of how success can affect an unsuspecting soul. Accordingly, the pace of the album is lackadaisical and unchanging, which can be frustrating at first. But after a few listens, it’s all too easy to fall into Demarco’s hazy world. Once that happens, songs like “Chamber of Reflection” and “Let My Baby Stay” take on these sort of stoned personalities of their own.

High Dive

High Dive

4. Shy BoysShy Boys


Sometimes when you hear an album, it feels like the whole package is there – the band name, the sound, the look of the album art, and everything just seems to fit together. This synchronicity is something KC’s Shy Boys had from the very beginning, in a seemingly effortless fashion. The first thing one notices is Collin Rausch’s nearly-whispered falsetto, which perfectly couples with his airy, reverb-drenched guitar attack. Almost like a bubble of vindictive angst in a young and reserved soul, the rhythm section of brother Kyle Rausch and fellow songwriter Konnor Ervin (both of the ACBs) provides the unbreakable backbone. This hard-and-soft contrast almost recalls an inversion and head-standing of the Pixies’ tried and true loud-quiet-loud formula. Shy Boys may not have predicted this trend, but they definitely had a leg up on it, and the consistent quality of the songwriting on their debut is enough to put it ahead of many albums in the same vein. Furthermore, the album is so short (10 songs in 22 mins) and so full of ear worms that it may be the most re-playable album of the year.

Yep Rock

Yep Rock

3. SloanCommonwealth


Sloan have been a band for a long time (1991-present). In fact, they rank as one of the longest-lasting bands with all original members of ALL TIME, right up there with U2. I’m sure some people are asking: How is this possible if I have never heard of them? There are a couple reasons. First of all, Sloan is a power pop band, and power pop has never been popular in the US. It probably never will be. Secondly, Sloan is Canadian, and Canada nurtures their artists in ways that should make the US completely ashamed. Canada demands that musicians receive government benefits, and that radio stations play a certain percentage of Canadian music. This process helps to make music a fairly self-sustaining industry in Canada, and also helps to make kickass bands like Sloan legitimately huge. Anyone think the US should maybe take a hint here?

Most hardcore Sloan fans are aware the band doesn’t listen to any music released after 1983, and the songwriting on Commonwealth continues to reflect this. Taking a cue from one of their favorite bands’ (Kiss) most notoriously unsuccessful stunts (releasing four solo albums at once), each member is given their own “solo side”. Aside from a lackluster third side from Patrick Pentland (which is disappointing, considering how many of the band’s past hits he has penned), the experiment is a prominent power pop success. Jay Ferguson’s side, the most consistent, opens the record with a mini-suite of melodic perfection. The second side belongs to Chris Murphy, who always offers up the most memorable lyrics. On “So Far So Good”, he warns us “Don’t be surprised when we elect another liar / Have you learned nothing from five seasons of The Wire?” And of course, resident weirdo/genius Andrew Scott provides the album’s swan song, a beautiful-if-not-overwhelming musical collage entitled “Forty-Eight Portraits” that combines every cool and maddening aspect of his songwriting into one singular opus. If the songs on Commonwealth are any indicator of the future, Sloan’s wealth of musical gems should continue to grow for some time.

Jagjaguwar

Jagjaguwar

2. Angel OlsenBurn Your Fire for No Witness


When has isolation and heartbreak ever felt so good? On her third album, Angel Olsen gathers up the most affecting and universal aspects of these negative experiences and turns them into a catharsis of sorts, producing as diverse and moving a collection of songs as any songwriter in recent memory. Her voice produces a huge sound for such a little person, recalling aspects of Roy Orbison and Leonard Cohen, but with a fragility that could make a puddle out of the most hardened soul. The production is sparse – supposedly, all mics used on the album cost less than $150 each. This gives it a lo-fi yet in-the-studio sort of feel, providing a bed of smoldering ash for Olsen’s desperate musings. The songwriting is all over the map in the best possible way, though. Olsen is obviously a huge appreciator of all sorts of music, and has used this love to uncover her own voice. On Burn Your Fire, it truly shines.

Caldo Verde

Caldo Verde

1. Sun Kil MoonBenji


Mark Kozelek has been one of my favorite songwriters for over a decade and has made numerous appearances on my year-end lists. In fact, almost every list I have made for the past 5 years has included one of Kozelek’s albums, whether from his main project Sun Kil Moon, or one of his various solo outings. But within and in between his numerous releases, Kozelek has developed as an artist in unexpected ways. He has always been known for his unabashed forays into human darkness, but while his earlier work with Red House Painters exuded desperation and was drenched with hopelessness, age and experience have shaped Kozelek’s later material into a sharp portrait of observation and acceptance. He is no longer a twenty-something confused and held up by his flaws, but now a forty-something who has the opportunity to look back and “see how it all may have shaped” him.

On Benji, this is exactly what he does, in what feels like real time. The gut-wrenching opener “Carissa” is the album’s mission statement, setting the overall tone of contrasting the bleak unfairness of life with the unshakable need to celebrate it. But it also acts as the opening scene to the visceral movie that is at the heart of this album. In “Carissa”, the main character (presumably Kozelek himself) learns from his mother about the sudden death of one of his younger cousins in an aerosol can explosion. As he makes plans to travel for the funeral, mental movies from throughout his life begin playing in his head – the funeral for his uncle, who died in the same manner, in “Truck Driver”; the chronicling of carnal conquests in “Dogs”; the tragic lives of people he has known in “Michelene”; and the portrait of youthful awe, endless regret and the human need for reparations that is “I Watched The Film The Song Remains The Same”. But life goes on even in tragedy, and he still must deal with a daily life wrought with complications – an aging mother (“I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love”), the meaningless deaths of innocent people (“Pray for Newtown”), getting older and having to pee a lot (“Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes”), and the strange combination of pride and jealousy when a friend’s success outshines his own (“Ben’s My Friend”).

This duality of past and present – and the impeccable manner in which Kozelek allows them to coexist – is what makes Benji feel alive. Pushing the boundaries of the traditional album, or even the concept album, Benji is an unapologetic chronicling of what the grief cycle does to the mind, put together so well it actually unravels the listener. It’s the story of life’s inherent imperfection, told with unflinching bluntness, yet a tenderness that has not been present in Kozelek’s work for some time. If you’ve experienced the death of someone very close to you, this album will probably make you cry. But in the end, you’ll most likely feel like a great weight has been lifted.

To hear some of my favorite songs from these albums, along with other great ones from 2014, visit Record Geek Heaven’s Favorite Songs of 2014.

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2 Responses to “Record Geek Heaven’s Favorite Albums of 2014”

  1. Kevin Gill Says:

    NO WHITE FENCE THEE OH SEES TY SEGALL

    • recordgeekheaven Says:

      I didn’t hear the White Fence or Oh Sees albums, so I’ll definitely have to check those out. I thought Manipulator was one of the more overrated albums of the year, though. I am a Ty Segall fan – Slaughterhouse, Twins and Hair were all fantastic in 2012. I even had Sleeper on my list last year. Manipulator was pretty boring in comparison, though. People are OBSESSED with double albums. Just because you put out an album with 17 songs on it doesn’t mean it should be on a year-end list. Most of those songs were forgettable and felt tossed off to me.

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