Jan 6, 2015

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The 9 Best Albums of 2014

I am terrible at getting these sorts of lists out; I waffled on last year’s so badly that I ended up only doing a writeup of my number one pick, when I actually had a lot to say. 2014 marks the first full year that I’ve had my radio show, so I was up to date on the music releases throughout all twelve months and had a fairly reasonable grasp of what came out and what I liked. Looking over my picks, I think it’s clear where my head was at in 2014. I wanted a lot of simple, well-made pop/indie that made me bounce a little more and brood a little less. Such is life, it seems.

Unfortunately I haven’t had the chance to listen to things like Black Messiah by D’Angelo, LP1 by FKA Twigs, or Run the Jewels 2. I have no doubt that those albums deserve to be on best-of lists, and my goal for 2015 is to listen to a wider variety of music and try to expose myself to more genres and artists. I also couldn’t come up with a tenth album to put on the list. Consider the tenth slot filled by Portugal. The Man’s albums, because I’ve been listening to them way more than many of the new releases I should have paid attention to.

But in the end, I’m relatively proud of this list; I put a lot of work into it, and I look forward to rereading it next December and wondering what the heck I was thinking. Without further ado, here are my top 9 albums of 2014:

9: Broken Bells, “After the Disco”

I’m a little shocked that this one is on here, and it’s probably the entry I’ll most regret in a year. James Mercer is the king of music which starts out really interesting but gets less and less good the more I listen—that’s precisely what happened with Broken Bells’ first album, and The Shins before it. Back in 2010 I wanted so badly to love his collaboration with Danger Mouse, but I just…didn’t. Now comes After the Disco, which improves on the formula; it presents tighter compositions and a better sense of energy. While there’s no “Ghost Inside” on this album, the overall quality is higher when averaged across all eleven tracks. The first three songs are almost perfect, and high-energy tracks like “Medicine” and “No Matter What You’re Told” keep the momentum consistent so that the slower songs never drag. After the Disco is on this list in part because it was such a pleasant surprise to find that six, seven, or ten months later, it’s still quite fun to listen to.

8. West My Friend, “When the Ink Dries”

This Canadian quartet won’t show up on many other lists, which is sad; When the Ink Dries is one of the most original folk albums I’ve heard this year—and 2014 was the year that I my interest plateaued when it comes to folk music. West My Friend describe themselves as “Cascadian third-wave indie prog chamber folk-roots”; I describe them as “the most intelligent lyricists I’ve ever heard”. With tracks featuring Sylvia Plath, multicoloured tattoos, baleen whales, and much more, West My Friend makes fun, intellectually stimulating music that will make you very happy. Highlights include the delightful “Missing You”, and the exquisite seven-and-a-half-minute “Cat Lady Song”, which might just be my favourite single song released this year; it’s the story of two boy cats who fall in love and conspire to get their respective cat ladies to fall in love too, so that they can all live together and hang out. Amazing.

7. Mother Mother, “Very Good Bad Thing”

I’ve liked Mother Mother’s previous work, but never as much as this. Very Good Bad Thing is an unabashedly sexy album, full of all the grinding beats and dirty synth riffs you’d expect from a hazy drug-and-sex-fueled rock star life. I understand that it has its faults, but I’ve really enjoyed this album every time I’ve played it—just listen to “Get Out the Way” or the title track and tell me that Mother Mother isn’t having the absolute best time of their lives being big loud rock stars. But even with all of that manic energy, there’s still room for quieter moments like the heartbreaking “Kept Down” or the effective “Alone and Sublime”. Then there’s “Reaper Man”, undoubtedly my favourite track of the lot, which merits a mention because god damn is it ever sexy and fun.

6. St. Vincent, “St. Vincent”

I finally caved. I put this on Spotify to see what all the fuss was about. I couldn’t get through the first track, “Rattlesnake”, the first two times I tried, but the third attempt proved the charm. I found Tori-Amos-on-a-mild-dose-of-Ritalin songs like “Prince Johnny”; I found hauntingly lovely ballads like “I Prefer Your Love”. I found straight-up great rock songs like “Regret” and stuff that sorta horrified and fascinated me at the same time, like “Digital Witness”. Forty minutes later I emerged, bleary-eyed, wondering where the hell I was.

This album is perfectly, gloriously, pretentiously, outrageously weird. I’d be remiss if I didn’t include it, because I have to keep my Pretentious Indie Snob cards somehow. I recognize that St. Vincent has a lot of musical talent—that’s part of how it ended up so high on this list—and that it’s the sort of thing enjoyed by people with far more refined taste than mine. I do like St Vincent, but to be perfectly honest, I’m still not quite sure: what in the fuck just happened?

5. Ages and Ages, “Divisionary”

I’ve never come across an album that’s as chameleon-like as this one. Ages and Ages manages to pull aural inspiration from Of Montreal, Buffalo Springfield, The Shins, and Mumford and Sons, all without ever sounding derivative. Divisionary was crafted as an antithesis to the typically mopey music of the Pacific Northwest, and it succeeds in that goal; it’s impossible to listen to this and not end up enjoying the rest of your afternoon. It’s an incredibly original album with nary a flaw in sight.

4. Stars, “No One is Lost”

Nothing will ever be as good as 2004’s Set Yourself on Fire, but Stars has done something truly remarkable and wondrous with No One is Lost. This is a dance album for introverts who hate dance clubs; it’s a disco album for shut-ins who have never been to a disco. Stars has assembled a fabulous collection of songs, capturing the loneliness and desperation which underlie the apparently fun club scene—but it never feels sad. Instead, it’s an album made for dance parties in your apartment—and in that sense it is full of joy. It’ll never be played on Thirsty Thursday, but if you go to your nerdiest hangout at closing time you might just hear “From the Night” or “No Better Place” as you eye that shy bearded dude reading William Gibson at the bar. It took Stars the better part of a decade to climb out from behind Set Yourself on Fire‘s shadow, but with No One is Lost they are definitively, finally back in the spotlight—and clearly loving every minute of it.

3. Coeur de Pirate, “Trauma”

I’m a sucker for a good album of covers, and so many of them are so often disappointing. However, Quebecois songstress Coeur de Pirate came along early in the year and absolutely nailed it with “Trauma”. A soundtrack to a French-Canadian TV show of the same name, “Trauma” consists of thirteen absolutely inspired song choices, ranging from classics like Tom Waits’ “Bottom of the World” to modern songs from Amy Winehouse and Bon Iver. Coeur de Pirate’s smoky, haunting voice will leave you floored on each and every one of them, as she transforms old Kenny Rogers country songs into sad, genuine tales of lost love and forces you to take another look at old Nancy Sinatra hits. Trauma is very simply produced, but it’s the very best type of simplicity. There’s nothing frivolous here; just Coeur de Pirate’s insanely gorgeous voice and enough backing instrumentation to make each song hit you square in the feels.

2. Jeremy Fisher – “The Lemon Squeeze”

“I wrote a piano pop album because I was out of guitar songs,” said Fisher during a performance in Victoria, BC. He may have switched primary instruments, but Fisher’s magnetic personality and clever songwriting skills are out in full force on The Lemon Squeeze, and the focus on piano makes him sound like an optimistic, less sardonic Ben Folds. If you’re used to albums full of meaning and deep thematic threads, The Lemon Squeeze is the best kind of treat; it’s a reminder of what pop music can be when talented people make it. From the energetic opener “I Love You…So?” through the snarkily sexy “Uh-Oh” and the clap-along “Song in My Heart”, Fisher never drops his momentum and never tries to make The Lemon Squeeze anything more than it is: a fun, well-written collection of pop songs that will bring a smile to your face and a spring to your step.

1. The New Pornographers, “Brill Bruisers”

Their best album since Twin Cinema. The best album of the year.

It’s tempting to just leave those cards on the table and knock off early, but I should probably say a little more than that. The thing about the New Pornographers is that I think they make some of Canada’s best music, period. It’s inevitable, considering the powerhouse lineup of talent behind the mics, but when they’re on they are fucking on. They just produce the most incredible pseudo-psychedelic indie-pop; it’s catchy and fun even on its worst day, full of emotion but never over the top. And Brill Bruisers is the New Pornographers at their very best; it bursts out of the gate with a gasp of joy and keeps going until the ever-hopeful finale, hitting bullseyes at every turn along the way.

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