This year wasn’t a personal best: much of the earlier part of the year was spent in and out of the hospital for cancer treatment, including a month-long stay for a stem cell transplant. While I was there, a friend sent me a mix CD. Listening to that was like a breath of fresh air into my sterile hospital room, and I remembered what life on the outside was like. A few of those artists—Angel Olsen and EMA—made it to my list, as well as Parquet Courts, one of the first reviews I did outside the hospital walls. This year was, however, a good year for music, and my bests for 2014 include some new artists as well as some old favorites. (I should probably just keep standing spots for any Parquet Courts or Zola Jesus releases.)
Best Albums of 2014
10. The Woodentops, Granular Tales (Cherry Red)
After a 25-year studio hiatus, The Woodentops released Granular Tales, a triumphant return for the notable British band. The new collection of songs spans a variety of styles and influences, from the storytelling languor that builds to hymnal harmonies in “A Little More Time” to the frenetic energy and Spanish flair of “A Pact” to the reggae beat and playful keyboards of “Conversations.” Other tracks seem to be plucked from decades ago—not a bad thing at all—such as the spirited “Third Floor Rooftop,” which should have an ’80s film built around it, or “I’m Delighted,” a bass groove providing a backdrop to the keyboards and Rolo McGinty’s ebullient musings. One of the true standouts is “Stay Out of the Light,” a hypnotizing bass line prodding the vocal pace as the song builds to a joyously psychedelic chorus. Even if you’re not familiar with The Woodentops’ ’80s catalog, Granular Tales is worthy of a listen.
9. Temples, Sun Structures (Fat Possum)
Since the ’60s, England has exported its share of psychedelic bands in cycles, from The Charlatans to Kula Shaker. It makes sense that with the revival in ’90s music and fashion, the fascination with the ’60s that was prevalent 20 years ago is back, too. At the forefront is Temples, a foursome that’s earned attention and praise from Johnny Marr and Noel Gallagher. But from the band’s shaggy hair and fringed jackets to the kaleidoscopic video for “Shelter Song,” the Temples exist as if the ’90s or any of the intervening decades never really happened and were all just a trippy dream. You can try to resist the infectious melodies and bassline of the “Mesmerise” single and the backbeat of “Keep in the Dark,” but eventually you’ll have to give in and enjoy the debut from these time-traveling troubadours.
8. Tweens, Tweens (Frenchkiss)
Following a building buzz—especially after supporting tour dates with the Breeders in 2013—Cincinnati’s Tweens released their self-titled debut earlier this year. Bridget Battle, Peyton Copes and Jerri Queen exhibit the kind of tightness and chemistry throughout the record of “trash pop” that you’d expect from a more mature band. Tweens’ collection of tunes melds punk defiance and a lo-fi attitude with melodic pop choruses and catchy hooks that hint at influences ranging from doo-wop to The Donnas. “Be Mean,” in which Battle asserts that a sweet guy is quickly securing himself a place in the friend zone, brims with youthful vigor and irreverence. Battle’s lyrics are full of bad-girl swagger, which at times can be empowering, while in other instances is even self-aware and vulnerable. As on “Bored in This City,” the Tweens might be artfully bored, but their debut proves they’re anything but boring.
7. Johnny Marr, Playland (Warner Music Group)
While Johnny Marr established himself decades ago as a legendary guitar player in The Smiths, he really came into his own as a solo artist last year with The Messenger, a nearly flawless record that left many wondering why he’d waited so long to take up the mic and move center stage. This year’s follow-up, Playland, shows that Marr was just getting started; it seems that catchy pop tunes flow from him nearly as easily as the unforgettable guitar hooks did. That said, the jangly signature Smiths sound doesn’t appear very often in his new material, save for a few hints in tracks like “Back in the Box” and “Little King.” “Candidate,” for example, sounds a little like a lost song from The Church, while guitar-driven “Dynamo” builds into a soaring track. Meanwhile, the standout single, “Easy Money,” delivers a message about material greed and an irresistible melody. Does this mean no price will ensure a Smiths reunion? No matter. Marr’s new solo material and energetic live performances (when he often incorporates classics like “Panic” and “How Soon Is Now?” into the set) are enough.
6. EMA, The Future’s Void (Matador)
Even if there wasn’t a track named after William Gibson’s 1984 cyberpunk novel Neuromancer, you’d probably get the hint that with The Future’s Void, EMA (a.k.a. Erika M. Anderson) primarily concerns herself with memories of the ’80s. On “Satellite,” she recalls the Cold War over hand-claps and synth: “I remember when the world was divided by a wall of concrete and a curtain of iron.” But EMA also looks forwards to the future—or the present, depending on how you look at it. This vision is explicit in the video for the punk-infused “So Blonde,” an amalgamation of the two decades taking place on Venice Beach, Anderson wearing mirrored sunglasses, a Doors shirt, boombox by her side and pixilated gif dancers, surfers, and skaters. On the album, EMA, suffering from internet fatigue, takes aim at selfies, cyberbullying, and on “Dead Celebrities,” the morbid fascination with the famous. While such examinations could fall prey to cliche, EMA avoids that trap with a powerful pop record that takes a critical look at how we got to where we are.
5. Gruff Rhys, American Interior (Turnstile)
This concept album from former Super Furry Animals frontman Gruff Rhys is about one of his distant ancestors, John Evans, a Welshman who traveled to the wilds of America in the late 1700s to find a Native American tribe said to be descendants of a 12th century Welsh prince named Madoc. It’s also the soundtrack to an accompanying documentary about Evans made by Rhys and Dylan Goch. A small plush version of Evans appears on the cover of the album and on tour, as Rhys tells the ill-fated explorer’s tale through song and slides from the film—more engaging and funny than you’d expect from a history lesson. Rhys details Evans’ journey on the rollicking, folksy “100 Unread Messages,” reimagined and modernized from the point of view of someone trying to email him and getting no reply. Rhys sings, “When you said that you loved me, I knew it wasn’t true. I’ve 100 unread messages and not a single note from you,” over percussion that mimics the chugging of a train. Evans’ story is told over a variety of styles, from the haunting, melancholy beauty of the title track and “Liberty (Is Where We’ll Be)” to the funk-tinged piano tune “The Last Conquistador” and the synth-driven “Lost Tribes.” American Interior is weirdly brilliant, which is fitting for a nearly forgotten fantastical tale of a Welsh explorer.
4. The Crookes, Soapbox (Modern Outsider)
Anyone who watched the Pulp documentary most likely fell a little in love with Sheffield, hometown to the Britpop greats and focus of much of the film. There’s a newer reason to turn your ears towards Sheffield: The Crookes, a band named after a suburb of the city and whose third record, Soapbox, is a charming whirlwind of jangly melodic pop. The band has drawn a lot of comparisons to Orange Juice, but there’s also quite a bit of ’50s and ’60s rockin’ and rollin’ in tracks like “Don’t Put Your Faith in Me” and the meandering dream pop of “Howl.” Over it all, vocalist George Waite makes clever observations and confessions, singing in a high-toned croon. Soapbox is delightful from beginning to end.
3. Zola Jesus, Taiga (Mute)
Zola Jesus (a.k.a. Nika Roza Danilova) said her fifth full-length album was her attempt at a pop record, yet it still stubbornly refuses to be neatly categorized. You won’t hear this at the gym, but that’s a good thing. Taiga teeters on the edge of the broad pop spectrum, far away from Taylor Swift and Charli XCX. On Zola Jesus’ earlier works, heavy percussion and soaring synths accompanied Danilova’s operatic vocals, which ascended over alternately sparse, somewhat noisy, gothic musical landscapes. Oddly, when she secluded herself on Vashon Island in Washington, where you’d expect her to create more of her haunting tunes, she came back to civilization with Taiga. The tracks have less of the atmospheric set-up and slow dramatic build than earlier songs, yet there’s still plenty of musical might on “It’s Not Over” and the brass-filled title track. Even the minimalistic “Nail” has a warmer feeling than her previous work, and “Dangerous Days” is nearly catchy and danceable. Zola Jesus continues to march to the beat of her own drum—the beats on this record are just a bit faster.
2. Angel Olsen, Burn Your Fire for No Witness (Jagjaguwar)
Though a woman singing about a failed relationship accompanied by her acoustic guitar is nothing new, Angel Olsen will captivate even the most hard-hearted and cynical. She has a voice that conveys both vulnerability and strength, and you know our heroine is going to be okay as she repeats, “I am the only one now,” a sad resolution that subtly evolves into a mantra of resilience and strength on the opening “Unfucktheworld.” While Olsen sometimes evokes the melancholy beauty of Mazzy Star on tracks like “White Fire,” more often than not her voice rings with echoes of old country, with a nod to Hank Williams on “High-Five” when she opens with “I feel so lonesome I could cry.” Every track on the record is brilliant, but standouts include the dreamy indie fuzz of “Forgiven/Forgotten” and “Stars,” on which she wishes she had the power “to scream the feeling until there’s nothing left.” But Olsen doesn’t need to scream to get our attention—all she needs is that voice and her guitar.
1. Parquet Courts, Sunbathing Animal (What’s Your Rupture?/Mom+Pop)
Parquet Courts’ debut, Light Up Gold, was on many critics’ best-of lists last year and the Brooklyn foursome was hailed as one of the most promising new bands around. This year, the band exceeded expectations with Sunbathing Animal. The band’s split personality makes for a record that ebbs and flows, sometimes meandering at a laidback, stoner amble with deadpan vocals reminiscent of Pavement and other times at a frenetic postmodern punk pace. The lyrics are clever, but show that the band never takes itself too seriously, and this go-around, the band’s youthful exuberance is tinged with a touch of world weariness. Songs seem to pour forth effortlessly; in fact, Parquet Courts’ Austin Brown and Andrew Savage even released another record, Content Nausea, this year under the name Parkay Quarts. If the band’s prolific evolution continues, we should all save a 2015 best-of spot—or two—for them.