Top 10 Albums of 2014

“The song we sing is so nostalgic,
Take me back to a time when I knew a little less.”

-Daley, “Love Somebody”


What you’re about to read has as much value as a Taylor Swift song, which is anywhere between nothing and everything.

Since I am not an artist nor do I hold any role in the music industry, I never felt like it was my place to take sides on the Streaming v. Downloading music debate. But after hearing both sides of the Taylor Swift and Spotify spat (both links are well worth a read), maybe it’s time for the listener’s stance.

When Swift’s 1989 came out earlier this year (way to taint the year which I was born, Taylor), I went to listen to it on Spotify, like I do with just about every other release. It wasn’t there. I’ve refined my musical exploration process to maximum efficiency, so I’m not taking extra steps to pursue her album when I wasn’t that interested in the first place.

I pay $10 a month for Spotify, along with an occasional album and concert ticket purchase. I dedicate a lot of time to this blog and I don’t charge a dime. I’m losing money on this thing. Swift’s argument is that everyone in the creative process should be compensated for their efforts, and I agree 100 percent.

But the world doesn’t work that way. We have a tendency to overvalue worthless commodities (non-necessities such as fashion, sports and Hollywood) and undervalue the more important aspects of life (education, the environment and charitable work). You can’t put price tags on everyone’s lifestyle, our spending habits do it for us. Likewise, we can’t all get paid to do what we love, which is why it’s commendable when we put forth the effort to do it anyway.

There are countless artists scratching and clawing, just to get heard. I made it a goal at the beginning of the year to increase the amount of artists I listen to on from 1,400 to 2,000. As of this writing, I surpassed 2,500, which is stunning because it took me seven years to get to that initial 1,400 (though it’s still not an impressive number). It’s all thanks to streaming music. I had instant access to any and every artist in the database, finding all sorts of hidden gems I never would have found otherwise.

But artists like Swift have lost sight of what this all means. It’s not like it matters to a pop juggernaut, but I have yet to hear her newest album. All of her work, whether I paid for it or not, is wasted because I never came in contact with it. Is it better to sell an album for $100 and have it never get played or is it better to give a song away for free and have everyone listen?

The most valuable result for any artist is to make the subject feel what you’re delivering – to connect with them on an emotional level. That’s what music does better than all art forms. So when an artist thinks that their music is too valuable to be shared “freely,” what they are really saying is that they value the money more than the meaning of their craft.

Here’s a fun anecdote from an interview with Mike Shinoda that will make you hate everything:

“On this record we spent six months in the studio, probably six more out of the studio in addition, just coming up with demoes and throwing them away. In contrast to that, there was a pop artist who I won’t name who was in the studio while we were doing our record—they showed up for three days. Day one they showed up for thirty minutes, day two they showed up for fifteen, and day three they neglected to show up at all. The song was done.”

The sick thing is a million people probably bought that track.

From a listener standpoint, I’m not here to say how musicians should be compensated for their work. The pay structure in the music industry is a mess, plus I think every profession has some form of monetary unbalance to it. But I can say that music has changed my life in a staggering amount of ways that it transcends dollar signs.

We all cherish our own work, otherwise why would we do anything at all? Swift, unlike many other pop stars, actually writes her own music and I respect her talent. I’d like to think that I put as much effort and heart into this post – 365 days in the making – as she put into her most recent album. I’m sure we put the same amount of value into our respective works: “This is perhaps the greatest thing I’ve ever done.” How you value it is up to you.

Except that I accept my work unconditionally. I won’t get any money, but I’d be satisfied even if no one read this. Does that cheapen the product? I don’t think so. I believe in content standing on the strength of its own merit, not the amount of money people are willing to throw at it. So it just seems wrong to demand compensation from others based off your own self-worth. If my $10 bucks a month isn’t worth your time, your music isn’t worth mine.

Thanks to the artists and albums below, however, I can end 2014 happy. There are bands who can appreciate listeners as people, not assets. Thus, I have given all of them the most valuable thing that I have: These words.

The Best Albums of 2014

“Words that carry me through
The length of silences between every day and night,
They echo and they slight,
Just melodies for any and everyone.

So who hears your secret song that warrants its saving?”

-Wovenwar, “Moving Up”

10. Against Me! – Transgender Dysphoria Blues

Defining track – 

Imagine feeling like you were given the wrong body. Like your conscience had one identity, but it didn’t match the shell you had been given. You’re at constant odds with yourself, so you spend years trying to figure out how to fit it all into one, whole person.

I can’t begin to fathom what that’s like. But through the power of music, I have an even more profound respect for those who overcome those challenges.

Against Me! spent several years establishing themselves as a moderately successful punk band until frontman Tom Gable came out as a transgender in 2012. It was an inspiring period, as the unchained Laura Jane Grace became a heartfelt story on the challenges of being a woman trapped inside of a man’s body. The story was great, but where did that leave the band? That was the hard part.

This albums took three attempts of scrapping ideas, bad luck and replacing two band members before they finally came out with Transgender Dysphoria Blues, a tale of identity, depression and belonging.

I don’t know any band of relevance that has gone through anything similar to this, which is why Transgender Dysphoria Blues is so gripping. Even at less than 30 minutes, this album is packed with a different kind of inner turmoil. If you listen to music for the stories of the songwriter, this is a firsthand account you’ve probably never heard before: “Even if your love was unconditional / It still wouldn’t be enough to save me,” Grace sings matter-of-factly in “Unconditional Love.”

Whatever your situation may be, this album does deal with themes of pain and depression. We all want to be loved and we all want to be happy, but we endure obstacles that force us in the other direction. That’s universal. Many of us find solace in music, and seldom does the narrative describe our exact situation. Gay, straight, transsexual, transgender, it doesn’t matter. We’re all just trying to get through life in one piece.

9. The War on Drugs – Lost in the Dream

Defining Track – 

Every now and then, you get something so quintessentially American, past and present, that its greatness is undeniable. We live in an era of extremes and there is either too much or too little going on in music to facilitate nostalgia from the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan. Lost in the Dream is that classic ramblin’ rock and roll riffed into a modern age.

Adam Granduciel, the brain child of War on Drugs, put two years of anxiety and paranoia into 10 brooding songs. At an average of six minutes, each track knows how to hit you with gloomy lyrics before letting the atmospheric guitars bring you back to the comforts of home:

“I’m in my finest hour,
Can I be more than just a fool?
It always gets so hard to seem bright
Before the moon.”

– “An Ocean in Between the Waves”

Great song. I can’t really pick out a stand-out track since this is one cohesive experience, though everyone seems drawn to “Red Eyes.”

This album is best observed through headphones, like a few others on this list. There used to be a time when you would put on a record and just get lost in the journey – no screens, no distractions.

Lost in the Dream is full of wistfulness and serves as a reminder that through a few lyrics and layered instruments, at least for the duration of the album, music is all that matters.

8. WE ARE TWIN – Xtra Love

Defining Track –

Pop music isn’t supposed to hurt this good.

WE ARE TWIN is an interesting mix: Nicholas Balachandran, a Sri Lankan multi-instrumentalist from Germany, and Gabi Christine, a girl from New York with a voice that can compete with any of today’s pop divas, met during a songwriting session and meshed immediately. Their first EP came out in 2013 featuring the infectious “The Way We Touch,” one of the best feel-good songs of that year. Their first five songs were a solid debut, but they had a wait-and-see vibe to them.

I’m lucky that I stuck around because their full-length debut, Xtra Love, is a complete metamorphosis. They added two more members to the band – not sure if that made the difference – and somehow made a pop album that rocks. It’s like a Sleigh Bells album you can listen to over and over without blowing out an eardrum.

I’ve reached that age where everything popular with the kids these days sounds like barf. It’s hard to find something authentic and fun while retaining an edge. I have no examples for this artist profile, so thank you for providing one, WE ARE TWIN.

“In This Moment” encapsulates everything you need to know about this band – a bubbling party-anthem intro with a chorus that could sustain riots. And once you hit that 2:58 mark, take cover. That girl can sing.

“You Said” throttles you with a buzzing guitar while Christine pierces the air with a punk aggression that would petrify 2014 Avril Lavigne. One of the great parts about the 33-minute thrill ride is the unpredictable changes that come in the middle of certain tracks. I thought “No Matter What It Takes” was going to be unsalvageable until the chorus tried to yank out all of the hairs on the back of my neck.

This list was basically finalized until WE ARE TWIN decided to bash my face in and leave me dazed in the middle of the street. “Did I just hear what I think I heard?”

That kind of music will leave a mark.

7. Run the The Jewels – Run the Jewels 2

Defining Track – 

There was a time when rap music didn’t have to rely on catchy hooks, groin-grabbing and endless pop culture references to get attention. With all of the nonsense cut out, you have a dense album full of lyrical acrobatics from two rappers at the top of their game.

Seriously, try to take turns rapping to the same beat as another person. It’s like you’re riding two elephants with their trunks tied together. Killer Mike and El-P are on something silly.

Listen to “Close Your Eyes (And Count to F*ck)” as they take turns in dazzling synchronicity before Rage Against the Machine’s Zack de la Rocha comes in and knocks the whole thing out of whack. His verse is still awesome, but it just shows you that everyone else is third wheel to Run the Jewels.

This is the rap of the now, which is more than welcome since this was a down year for the genre. We’re smarter than a repetitive chorus and we’re exhausted of words that rhyme with “LeBron.” Just give us the message. We can take it.

“A little toast to the no ones,
With a nod to the masters,
To the ones with the riches,
From the ones who the rags fit.”

– “Angel Duster”

Killer Mike and El-P are a vicious tag-team, leaving you bruised and paralyzed just as the other is about to deliver another whooping. We’re talking haymakers. They’ve got a message, and you’re going feel it.

6. SOHN – Tremors

Defining track – 

We had a surge of electro/indie/pop in 2013 to the point that it began to sound repetitive and stale. Everyone was influencing one another and once the music industry saw that it was selling, the James Blakes and SBTRTKs spread like wildfire. Luckily, there’s always someone to come along and move things forward.

SOHN, the stage name of Toph Taylor, mixes hypnotic instrumentals and his soothing falsetto to form a unique experimental pop. The man does about everything you hear, which is anything from piano, synth, guitar, vocals and more to create a complex yet subtle ambiance.

The first song I heard from SOHN was “Artifice,” and I had no idea what to feel. It’s a sad song, right? “Somebody better let me know my name / Before I give myself away.” But it sounded kind of fun. The dynamic was especially engaging, like a Gotye and Radiohead love child.

If you haven’t heard of Taylor’s previous project, Trouble Over Tokyo (also awesome), that’s probably because it was one of the well-hidden gems over the past few years. Good music deserves to be heard, so come and get SOHN.

5. Wovenwar – Wovenwar

Defining Track – 

A good rock album is hard to come by in this decade, let alone a great one.

Wovenwar was founded by members of Oh, Sleeper and As I Lay Dying, which has proved to be a mighty union for both parties. Don’t go in expecting a rehashing of their respective former bands, though.

The guitar solo makes a triumphant return to relevance on just about every track with polished and punishing licks. Add them to Shane Blay’s striking vocals, and you have melodic rock that’s accessible to a broad range of listeners. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but this is as fundamental as rock gets.

Each genre of music has its own role to play in the musical spectrum. Traditional rock is usually reserved for the angry, the beaten and the broken, searching for the strength to stand and overcome. “All Rise,” the band’s debut single, epitomizes the album’s tone of perseverance and a passion in a way I haven’t heard since Stone Sour’s House of Gold and Bones.

On top of all it, the lyrical writing is some of the most poetic I’ve seen from a rock band, as depicted in the lyrics above. “Prophets,” “The Mason” and the change-of-pace ballad, “Father/Son,” are all finely crafted as catchy yet rewarding tracks that lead you along a lyrical or instrumental narrative. You won’t find vulgarity or cheesiness anywhere. Instead, they paint incredible imagery in tracks such as “Tempest.” That song will make you feel like you can move mountains.

Simply put, this is one of the best rock albums in years.

4. Paolo Nutini – Caustic Love

Defining track – 

Young men with old souls are good at music. For the uninitiated, Paolo Nutini is a Scottish soul/pop singer with pipes powerful enough to wake the sun from slumber.

Caustic Love is his third album, first in five years, and a journey through time. If Sunny Side Up was an experiment in folk and blues, this album dives headfirst into funk and soul, which suits his talents perfectly. The arrangements are some of the most complex he’s ever done, and it makes the tracks so much more dynamic.

A few standouts:

  • “Scream (Funk My Life Up)” – A surefire party anthem, it’s the most fun on the album. He and Bruno Mars are the among the best modern funk interpreters.
  • “One Day” – A smoky bar jam that has some of the best vocals you’ll hear this year. The chorus is like a beautiful dagger to the chest.
  • “Iron Sky” – A crown jewel, one of the rare songs that dares cross unexplored territory. My pick for song of the year. Look at this video and tell me that this song doesn’t have meaning:

If you like the simple old school Paolo, songs like “Better Man” and “Someone Like You” will do just fine with their subtlety. And Janelle Monae makes a little cameo on the cool “Fashion” track. The music has enough integrity that you don’t really much backstory to go with it. There’s enough heartbreak on this list, so we’re going to let Nutini do the talking on this one.

Sidenote: While doing this writing, I discovered that he played in my city a couple of weeks ago, for free. I am furious that I did not hear about this. This man is at the top of his game right now, and catching him live is the one thing better than listening to this album.

3. Lykke Li – I Never Learn

Defining track – 

I was fortunate enough to see Lykke Li this year and I remember a moment just before she played “Never Gonna Love Again.” She said to the crowd, “I wrote this during a sad time in my life.” I appreciated the candor, but this was not news. She had already said that a dozen times over in this album.

My earlier views on I Never Learn haven’t changed much. This is a devastating album, made by someone who lives and dies through their music. Every word scribbled on paper, every note played in the studio served as a direct connection to her bleeding heart.

You don’t have to guess or read through the lines here, it’s just good old fashion heartbreak and picking up the pieces. That’s artistry. You can hear a lifeless Rihanna perform “Stay” or you can learn what true grief is and give “Love Me Like I’m Not Made of Stone” a go. Goodness, that song.

The hook in “No Rest for the Wicked” goes straight for the jugular and “Gunshot” is downright primal. It’s another half-hour album, but each listen will surround you in grey skies, left cold and vulnerable. But it’s tracks like “Silver Lining” and “Heart of Steel” that provide somber visions of hope.

If you do not yet know Lykke Li, this is her, both as a human and a musician. It only took three albums, but she has achieved maximum rawness.

I’m glad I was able to see her in person. She was endearing on stage and she can be an adorable goof on Instagram. It was almost hard to believe that this was the person capable of making this melancholic masterpiece.

But after telling us about her lost love, she started singing. That was her. In that moment, in that song, there was the pain. Even through the worst heartache imaginable, you can find happiness on the other side. But that’s the tragedy of a performer who lives an dies by their work: You have to be able cross back into that despair time and time again.

2. Daley – Days and Nights

Defining track –

Here’s a sick thought: Even though I’m happily married, I wish I could once again become a victim of unrequited love so I could rightfully drink from the milky neo-soul that is Gareth Daley.

Daley is a 20-something British crooner that seems to have already suffered a lifetime of letdowns. People went crazy for Sam Smith this year, yet I never heard anyone talk about Daley. No disrespect to the talented Smith, but Daley is more deserving that kind of publicity. They each show immense depth in their writing and performing, something R&B was sorely lacking. But the dynamism of Days and Nights made it one this year’s highlights.

The album opens up with “Time Travel,” where Daley spills regret over some simple claps before we get a crazy beat breakdown halfway through. He handpicked different producers for different tracks (Pharrell, Illangelo and Aqualung, among others), and the whole thing sounds immaculate.

The lower we get on this list, the harder it gets to highlight specific songs. It may sound cliche, but every track is worth a listen, no matter your relationship status. If you want a place to start, see his vocal range on full display on the fast-pace “Broken,” the more subtle “Look Up” and top it off with “Love Somebody,” which may be one of the most grief-stricken love songs I’ve ever heard.

I’ve exhausted almost all the terms for sadness this year, but 2014 was proof that broken hearts are a catalyst for exceptional music. Let’s hope Daley and some of the others on this list can keep it coming even after the pain subsides.

1. Broken Bells – After the Disco

Defining track – 

We generally seek out music that reflects our mood. We look for the sadness in albums such as the ones mentioned above, we look for joy in “Happy” and we look for strength in “Eye of the Tiger.”

Whenever I couldn’t decide on what to listen to, regardless of mood, I would default to this album. It read me every time. After the Disco is a sonic kaleidoscope, casting a glorious array of colors all at once. And it’s a great way to lose yourself.

The opening track, “Perfect World,” creates a glossy facade for the entire record, as if it’s a package too pretty to open. You don’t want to put your fingerprints on it for fear of tainting its perfection.

The beauty of “Perfect World,” and several other tracks, is that it’s both sad and hopeful:

“I was hoping for an easy rambling life,
Till an ocean came to my mind.
We look for exit signs,
But we can’t be changed into nothing overnight.”

After the Disco consists of signature Danger Mouse beats, James Mercer’s timeless voice, the Angel City String Orchestra and a four-piece choir. Those were great additions because compared to their self-titled debut in 2010, this is loaded with layers and it’s far more interesting.

I couldn’t believe this was the band responsible for “Holding On for Life” when I first heard it. It’s an eerie little ear worm that sounds otherworldly. Danger Mouse is great at creating his own musical landscapes in his various projects, but this was perhaps the first time that his sound drifted out of our atmosphere.

However, After the Disco didn’t necessarily shatter space and time.  Stacked up against all of the music that came in 2014, it isn’t the most dominant presence in the room. But when it’s just you and the album, it’s untouchable.

Best of the Rest

The genre specialists who did it right.

Best Pure Pop
Sia –  1000 Forms of Fear
Faceless pop star is finally getting the recognition she deserves. (Full Review)

Best Pure Rock/Metal
Starset – Transmissions
Rock music is finally embracing the future. (Full Review)

Best Pure Rap
The Roots  – …and then you shoot your cousin
Deep and rational social commentary about race. Cerebral rap.

Best Pure Alternative
FKA twigs – LP1
The production is so impeccable that it will literally take your breath away.

Best Pure Country
Eric Church – The Outsiders
For the most part, it has some grit to it. It’s also the first country album I could stomach in a long, long time.

Best Pure R&B
Luke James – Luke James
Classy R&B that sounds modern. This is the sound that Usher should have kept pursuing.

Best Comeback (Tie)
Death from Above 1979 – The Physical World
Aphex Twin – Syro
Showing the new class how it’s done. You all were missed.

Editor’s Choice (The good album that didn’t fit)
Kris Allen Horizons
The reason why you should never win American Idol.

Previous Year-End Lists

2010 | 2011 | 2012 | *2013

*I regret that format.

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