The Best Albums of 2014 - Another Dumb "Year End" List
2014. Another dumb year, finally coming to an end. And another dumb “year end list” from another internet music “critic” who is operating under the impression people value his opinion.
The problem with the “year end list” is that it always leaves the door open for regret and second-guessing. You look back and wince at your choices, wondering what on Earth possessed you to say that you thought that was the best of a certain year.
My problem this year has been trying to come up with a list of albums that I can actually stand behind and say that I liked them enough to call them the best.
I listened to music in 2014. I probably listened to less this year than I have in previous years. Maybe it’s because music was pretty fucking disappointing in 2014. Or maybe it’s because of my crippling depression that I reached an all-important point and realized that barely anything matters anyway, so why am I even wasting my time anyway?
There were a lot of records in 2014 that I did not much care for. A lot of boring music came out this year and I felt the need to burn lean tissue by sitting through them and then writing down my thoughts on just HOW boring they were. There were also records that I was like “oh hey this is okay.” But is just “okay” good enough to make it until December and wind up on this dumb list that like three people are going to read? Is just “okay” the kind of thing I keep coming back to throughout the year—and hell, is just “okay” something I even remember came out in 2014?
I can safely name eight albums that came out in 2014 as records that I legitimately liked enough to say that they are “the best.”
Don’t ask me about them next year though. We all know how opinions sway over time. At this rate, I may not like music at all in 2015.
I feel like I would be some kind of heretic, or an awful monster or something, if I didn’t include Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes by Thom Yorke on this list at number 8. Yes, I understand that the popular opinion is that Radiohead fans are growing restless for the band to get back together and make an album that actually sounds like a band, and is not The King of Limbs. But hey, that was one of my favorites of 2011—and I think I may have felt contractually obligated to do that, but in revisiting it earlier this year, I was like “You know, this is pretty good.”
Last year, I didn’t include Yorke’s foray into supergroup territory with Atoms For Peace on my best of 2013 list—I’m not even sure if it was ever a contender anyway, honestly. Not that it, was like, terrible or anything. There was just something not very immediate about it. Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes, for as glitchy and full of beep boops as it is—well, there is something very immediate about it. It’s a surprisingly dense, complicated, and ultimately, a rewarding listen.
Despite how unhuman it sounds at times—specifically in the final three songs, there are some surprisingly human moments: early on, in the form of “Interference,” and in the somber tone that tracks like “Truth Ray” take as the skitter along.
Usually, my take on a record is that to make it to the end of the year, it has to be pretty special. Released in January of 2014, Babyface & Toni Braxton’s concept album Love, Marriage, and Divorce is that kind of record, coming in at number 7 on this list.
Rarely do you hear music intended for the mainstream come off as smart as this record does. Forgoing any kind of derivation of Babyface’s mid-90s stride of R&B hits, he and Braxton have created a refreshingly honest set of songs that tracks the ups and downs (and the eventual bitter end) of a relationship. Lyrically, it’s on point—devastatingly real, heartbreaking, and humorous. Musically, Babyface has not lost his touch as a songwriter—the songs are a smooth, well-produced balance between fun and serious.
And yes, if you came of age in the 1990s, in the era of Braxton’s run with “Unbreak My Heart,” and Babyface’s songwriting with Whitney Houston, there is a bit of a nostalgic aspect to Love, Marriage, and Divorce, and maybe that’s why this album was so appealing to me, and something that I thoroughly enjoyed listening to in 2014. Or maybe it’s just that good—you get emotionally invested in the characters sung by Braxton and Babyface. You want them to make it, but SPOILER ALERT—they don’t.
Not to devalue albums numbers 6 and 5 on this list, but I can’t really decide which one to place where, so we’re just going to talk about them both in this portion and maybe you can sort it out. The albums in question are Shriek by Wye Oak and the self-titled effort from Ryan Adams—both are not really “career re-defining” records, per se, but they both mark new chapters for their respective artists.
In 2011, after endless touring in support of Civilian, Wye Oak was burned out, and I guess they almost broke up. New songs weren’t coming easy, and vocalist/guitarist Jenn Wasner was tired of playing the guitar—something you can hear come through in her oddball indie-new wave side project Flock of Dimes, and as the voice of the Top 40/R&B project Dungeonesse. Thankfully Wye Oak did not split up. Instead, Wasner picked up the bass, and drummer Andy Stack incorporated even more washes of synthesizers—something the band had always used sparingly—to inject a fresh, somewhat jarring take on the duo’s dynamic.
The result, Shriek, the band’s fourth album, shows the band writing outside of the quiet/loud/quiet guitar-driven structure that propelled their first three albums, and instead, finds them exploring more melodious textures—specifically in songs like “Sick Talk” and the very upbeat closing track, “Logic of Color.” There’s still some noisy chaos created by pedal noodling and dramatic synth flourishes, but for a band that worked to create such a stark atmosphere on Civilian, a bit of that veil has been lifted.
As for Ryan Adams, apparently, there’s yet another shelved/vaulted completed record that we are never going to hear—dude wrote and recorded the follow up to Ashes and Fire, and as he was attempting to turn it in to his label, he realized that it was “slow, adult shit,” and couldn’t release it. Adams went back into the studio, and with his self titled effort, he created his most cohesive and enjoyable record in nearly a decade.
A nod to classic 1970s bands like Fleetwood Mac, with a wink to acts like The Smiths and other 80s British “alternative” artists, and possibly a little Velvet Underground mixed in there for good measure, Ryan Adams finds its namesake writing at his most concise. It’s a short record—11 songs, and really none of them are bad. Some are exponentially more successfully than others—like the hook driven lead single “Gimme Something Good,” the dissonant grit of “Kim” (which I presume is about Kim Kardashian, is it not?), the stomping regretful memories of “Feels Like Fire,” and the closing one-two punch of “Tired of Giving Up” and “Let Go.”
Sobriety has given Adams a chance to work at a less frenetic pace, and allowing him to focus on quality over quantity, and Ryan Adams is a clear example of that.
Clocking in at longer than some action movies, at number 4, Kyle Bobby Dunn’s masterful Kyle Bobby Dunn and The Infinite Sadness is, needless to say, a dramatic undertaking—both for Dunn, as an artist, and for you, as a listener. With the territory being ambient droning music, this record moves (purposefully) at a glacial pace, like the Criterion Collection edition of a film about molasses rolling up a hill. The pieces, all 19 of them, glisten beautifully—somber, moving, sometimes hopefully, always poignant—it’s never uninteresting to hear Dunn slowly build these compositions from their humble beginnings.
Then of course, there’s the self-aware choice to title the album Kyle Bobby Dunn and The Infiinte Sadness; there are pieces with names like “Mon Retard,” “Boring Foothills of Footfetishville,” and my favorite, and hands down the best piece on this entire thing, “Variations on a Theme by St-Dipshit.”
Try telling someone that one of your favorite tracks of the year is “Variations on a Theme by St-Dipshit.” I said that to my wife and she couldn’t stop laughing.
Keeping a sense of humor, though, is key to something as weighty as this. Parenthetically titling something the “Drunk in Quebec & in Love Club Remix” shows that Dunn, even when diving as far down emotionally as he does on KBD and The Infinite Sadness, that you always have to try to take time and laugh.
With all due respect to Charlotte Oleena (or Loseth, or whatever her last name actually is) Shallow (number 3 on this list) took me by complete surprise. Based on the kind of dreamy, bedroom recorded, carefree whimsy of her self-released efforts from 2010 and 2011, both of which were then reissued on cassette by Bridgetown Records—I was not expecting something so mature sounding.
Nor was I actually expecting something new from her at all. In this internet age that we currently find ourselves in, an artist with social media outlets that are all but abandoned is very easy to write off as inactive. But returning as Sea Oleena, Shallow finds the project’s namesake crafting elegant, gorgeous, thoughtful, hypnotic and stark pieces—some of them swoony along dreamily (the title track and “To Hold”); some of them creep along, teetering into a bit of a baroque pop sound (the impressive opening track “If I’m”), some of them take you on a transformative journey (the sprawling “Vinton, LA”)—Shallow is nothing short of an amazing accomplishment.
In the wake of D’Angelo’s surprise release of his long, long gestating third album, Black Messiah, one of my editors at my day job told me that the music journalism industry doesn’t run on the same calendar year that the rest of the world does. Meaning, that people turn in their “Best of” lists and call it a day with any given year in November, rather than at the tail end of December, when a year actually ends.
This is worth noting because EVERYONE who already wrote a “Best of” 2014 list, and had that shit posted somewhere prior to the release of Black Messiah looks like an idiot. An album like this is EXACTLY THE REASON why you wait until THE END OF DECEMBER to pick the best. Burial did this very same thing in 2013 with the out-of-nowhere release of Rival Dealer.
Black Messiah (number 2 on this list) is everything you would hope for in an album that took, like, nearly 15 years to complete. It’s urgent—incredibly urgent, apparently—a reflection of our troubling times as well as D’Angelo’s own struggles over the last decade plus. But in that struggle and chaos, there is a sense of hope, and the flicker of the innocence that was lost.
It’s soulful without being too lusty; it’s claustrophobic without being oppressive; it’s political without being too preachy, or maybe D’s just preaching to the choir. It’s also just so fucking good. We, as a collective, did nothing to deserve D’Angelo’s return from self-imposed exile, but he came back anyway, delivering unto the world both a timely and a timeless statement set to music.
If you know me, or even just follow the blog, you should not be surprised in the slightest that I selected How to Dress Well’s “What is This Heart?” as my favorite record of 2014. When this was originally announced back in the spring, I thought, “Well, that’s it—we can just stop making music in 2014 after this album comes out.” And save for the arrival of Black Messiah, we really could have. I mean, how do you top a fully developed artistic assertion like this?
HTDW, as you probably (hopefully) know, is really the work of one man—Tom Krell, who has come a long way in a very short amount of time. Originally releasing self-recorded tracks online, Krell compiled Love Remains in 2010, an album of blissed out, noisy, dark lo-fi R&B. Two years later, Krell started to step out of the darkness with the stark, breathtaking Total Loss. And as a performer, and a songwriter, Krell is now fully in the spotlight. Long gone are the days of his voice buried deep within the mix under layers and layers of reverb. His voice is clear and present, as is his message—and the message behind “What is This Heart?” is that there are no easy answers to this big stupid thing called life.
Sketches of dream logic, the confusion and urgency of love, and the belief that things are maybe, just maybe, going to be okay someday are just a few of the ideas present on the record. And only an artist as brave and as intelligent as Krell could channel those big, heavy ideas and run them through straight up (and astoundingly innovative) pop music—Krell’s affinity for R&B still strong, like the Janet Jackson influence on a song like “Repeat Pleasure,” or the 1980s/90s Top 40 lean to that synth hook in “Words I Don’t Remember.”
In my original review of “What is This Heart?” I said that Krell is making pop music for adults. By tossing aside the vapid nature of what is on the radio in 2014, but maintaining that very essence, it’s a record that says: “I am so miserable, but I don’t want to feel this way forever.” On the album’s gigantic closing track, Krell sings “The future is older than the past—every new day carries the weight of the last,” and then later, “The world is such a pretty, pretty thing.” The song, “House Inside,” sums up what we all need to realize—it’s about acceptance and about moving on. This coming from the guy who made two records that were mostly inspired by the sudden death of his best friend. Krell himself has said in interviews that he doesn’t want to be “that sad guy” forever. And this is that moment—the moment for him, and for all of us. Yes, it’s true, every new day does carry the weight of the last. Believe me, I know that. But, the point of this album is—what are you going to do with that weight?