Records are like currency. Comprised of the same materials, we seek their intrinsic value in differing levels of reasoning: whether it be concept, talent, inspired words or moral code. Our selections for the best records of 2014 were about making sense of a year that made little of it. When the mundane needed a natural high, we sought the swift kick of Ought’s Today More Than Any Other Day. When we were in love, every moment was our favorite Future Islands song, and when we were broken it was Mitski (or yet another Future Islands song). As we watched Bill O’Reilly criticize Spike Lee for not fixing the “black situation,” the words of Open Mike Eagle were with us: “Fuck you, if you’re a white man that assumes I speak for black folks / Fuck you, if you’re a white man who thinks I can’t speak for black folks.” As police murdered young black men on- and off-camera, we had Killer Mike on CNN while Katie Alice Greer pointed a finger directly back at the problem. And when we couldn’t bear the chaos outside our doors, we retreated to our bedrooms to find Alex G and Frankie Cosmos waiting.
We sincerely hope you were able to find new value in your appreciation of music this year. Though it might have been a bleak one, we were reminded time and time again, that with music, we always had an escape. And in 2014, these are the records’ we found to be the most valuable.
Ought constructed much of Any Other Day from such reliable foundational blocks (you probably won’t read a review of this record that fails to mention David Byrne or Tom Verlaine), but they also possess an inclusive curiosity. They evaluate everyone from Wire to Wolf Parade with the same generous amount of inquisitiveness. Songs like “Clarity!” and “Gemini” even recall the extremely particular the punk gadgetry of ‘90s almost-heroes Brainiac. Yet throughout Any Other Day, there’s enough negative space and dexterity to allow listeners to intuit traces of just about any artist belonging to the post-punk lineage.
You don’t usually get to see the precise moment when a band erupts from murmur to scream. For Future Islands, it happened on camera: Their performance of “Seasons (Waiting on You)” on David Letterman’s Late Show suddenly rocketed the Baltimore trio to a wide national spotlight. In those critical minutes, singer Sam Herring held a gaze that reminded even viewers at home that Letterman’s studio was packed with living people just off-screen. He seemed completely unconscious of the cameras that leered at him. He sang with an urgency that can rarely be held by a television screen or a YouTube window. Of all the small-label standbys to break big, Future Islands is one of the strangest.
Singles, Future Islands’ fourth official full-length, is the band’s clearest, firmest work. The band toyed with indie psychedelia on previous efforts and then they grew bold enough to drop it. Rather than stay safe within trendy aesthetics, Welmers and bassist William Cashion slowly tuned their sound to bolster Herring’s exquisite affect. Before Singles, Future Islands were an indie pop band with a strange, charismatic singer. Now, they’re a cohesive force biting deep into what pop is and what it can do.
In the spirit of enduring futility comes Protomartyr’s Under Color of Official Right, a desperate, invigorating paen to resistance against our everyday demons: “Greedy bastards, rank amateur professionals, gluten fascists… recent memories,” and “terrible bartenders.” These are all on singer Joe Casey’s list for extermination in “Tarpeian Rock,” a dissonant jag named after a cliff in ancient Rome used to execute criminals and liars. Casey’s voice is a unique brand of everyman bark, the unmistakable shout of your neighbor cutting through the picket fence. It’s also remarkably versatile. The band can squint at The Spits or echo The Fall, and they also share style with their peers Tyvek. Protomartyr is exceptionally skilled at draping the starker edges of punk over pop hooks, and guitarist Greg Ahee can linger on a shimmering, solitary minor chord just enough to make Paul Banks choke.
Still, the band’s true enemy feels like cynicism. Protomartyr shouts “Stay, illusion!” not because they want it banished, but because the illusion is all we have. Live it while you can. After all, as Casey reminds us in the album’s closer “I’ll Take That Applause,” there’s “nothing ever after.”
12. Alex G, DSU (Orchid Tapes)
DSU is the first Alex G release that didn’t go straight to Bandcamp after it was recorded, instead being pressed to vinyl by the Orchid Tapes imprint—selling out of the first press in less than 24 hours. The album comes after RULES and TRICK, two self-released albums that thrust the 21-year-old Temple University student into a very small but very passionate Internet limelight, and it is both a logical progression and a staunch demonstration of faith to the bedroom pop aesthetic he has fostered thus far.
DSU retains the themes that have permeated past Alex G records: death, change, mistakes, regret, and love. It’s an overwhelmingly strong album with several stand out moments: the catchy ease of “Harvey” and “Black Hair”, the inhuman falsetto on “Rejoice”, the final heartbreaking moments of “Hollow”. The album feels deeply personal, a sense that is once again heightened by an isolated recording process. This intimacy is not necessarily inviting, though. At times, it’s even abrasive. Often drawing comparisons to The Microphones or Mount Eerie (two bands Alex Giannascoli admits to never hearing), but like his cryptic lyrics, the events of life are often inexplicable, and all we can do is accept them and continue on.
11. Perfect Pussy, Say Yes To Love (Captured Tracks)
“Since when did we all decide to give up? Since when do we say yes to love?” asks Meredith Graves halfway through “Interference Fits”, the centerpiece of her band’s masterful hardcore record, Say Yes to Love. It’s a powerful question to lift for an album’s title, especially given its context among lyrics about never wanting any children, the weirdness of watching friends fall in love and the subsequent conversations of churches and veils and wives. Perhaps the most crucial line of the song though, is one that comes and goes more quietly towards the beginning: “Nothing that comes and goes is you.” That sort of centered meditation of self-awareness is crucial to understanding an album like Say Yes—one of the year’s bravest, a collection of songs that wholly encourages finding lightness in darkness, beauty in pain, self-empowerment in a toxic, trying world. If you can’t hear it, listen closer.
10. Princess Nokia, Metallic Butterfly (Self Released)
Princess Nokia’s Metallic Butterfly is aptly named. Shedding the previous recording moniker Wavy Spice, Nokia emerged as something mature and beautiful, with the power to move her arms and cause typhoons; chaos theory made form. Her wonderful first album manages to be both declarative and inquisitive, asking “are you ok?” before telling you that you are stronger than you know. The shifting production by OWWWLS (Christopher Lare) gives the listener a thousand different forms in which to take refuge pulling on Nokia’s history in clubs, the drum and bass rhythms of “Dragons” and “Biohazard Butterfly”, the trip hop stylings of “Metallic Butterfly”, the Afro-caribbean sounds of “Bikini Weather Corazon En Africa” bump up against the modern sounds throughout the album. Yet Nokia’s messages of positivity and strength don’t end when the record stops as she works to push a framework of femininity known as Smart Girl Club; giving fellow women a platform to create their own worlds of art and friendship. All the more reason to prop up this self-assured artist to new heights in 2015.
09. Good Throb, Fuck Off (White Denim)
Pulling members from a small and highly-interconnected scene Good Throb is the sound of urban alienation pressed to vinyl and flung out a window; weaponized isolation and paranoia; less The Fall and more The Fallen. Songs such as “Acid House”, “Central Line”, and “Crab Walk” all speak to an inability to connect with the people around them as the song parts clash and bump up alongside each other, going in the same direction instead of actually functioning as songs. Good Throb’s Fuck Off is exactly what you expect from the title and cover art. It’s as perfect a modern punk album as you can ask with shambolic shifts in phrasing, spat lyrics, questionable production that results in a loose, angry half-hour which sounds less like an album and more like a group of people hanging out after work and taking their frustrations out on a recording studio.
Eighteen Hours of Static is poised to be a record that finds its place in a number of circles. A torrential debut for a young band, Static is dominant due to its searing, self-aware lyrics, pinning Joe Galarraga as the magnetic, keening frontman. It fits all of the manic energy, creepy-quietness, weird humor, and skull-ripping bursts of anger from Big Up’s manic live set, fit into a delightful take-it-anywhere package. But it succeeds on a multitude of levels, like thousands of pages of technical drawings, that when arranged correctly, form to make one monolithic machine. They set aside—or willingly bury—all that they know, all their quirks and concerns, to slavishly dedicate themselves to being as upfront and coarse as they can. They address their cerebral anxieties by pushing them to the edge. It’s that mix of sass and darkness that makes Big Ups the sort of weird animal you can’t stop staring at.
Clocking in at nearly an hour, the Adderall-bought-off-the-street raps of MC Daveed Diggs—too fast, too scary, and too weird for your average hip-hop head—are only matched by the incredible production. If Death Grips is the Father of this newfound punked-up grit-hop and Yeezus is the Son, then clipping. may have very well just staked out a place as Holy Ghost. Ethereal and trippier than the other brothers’ trinity, it’s a bit more My War than Damaged. But authenticity is, by nature, subjective and elusive. No matter how many interviews the group utilize to defend their contributions to the experimental spirit of hip hop, viewing their craft as no less inventive than early Dr. Dre or Bomb Squad, clipping. remain in the crosshairs of critics. It’s a phenomena that says more about the critic than it does about the group, and is reason enough to confidently proclaim CLPPNG as one of 2014’s best.
While Space Brothers was 22 blistering minutes of nervously pivoting from one great, yet underdeveloped, idea to the next, Hoodwink’d reigns in LVL UP’s focus, giving each song its proper due and allowing them to build a cohesive, coherent artifact. Aside from being both sonically and thematically tighter, Hoodwink’d—more than their previous efforts—showcases LVL UP’s musicianship.
Between constant self-referencing and its mostly abstract lyrics, Hoodwink’d clearly offers a lot to think about. And yet, at the same time, it doesn’t require much thinking. Ultimately, that’s the genius of this album: it’s simultaneously a totally accessible pop record—full of catchy hooks and ripping solos—and a depressing series of existential crises. The combination of the two is an album that’s both a wonderful contradiction and a must-listen.
05. Angel Olsen, Burn Your Fire For No Witness (Jagjaguwar)
Research has repeatedly proven that the Internet is making us lonelier, that exposure to watered-down interactions is actually awful for our souls, and that as a society humans have never been more isolated. Burn Your Fire For No Witness feels like an answer to a specific breed of pervasive isolation that is firmly rooted in the present. “If there’s one thing I fear, it’s knowing you’re around, so close but not with me,” Olsen sings on the twangy “Forgiven/Forgotten”, one of the record’s more upbeat moments. Perhaps the single most compelling aspect of Burn is that for all of its phantom heartbeats, forgotten dreams, and inability to connect, the record is not utterly joyless. Indeed, Olsen is full of light. There are slow-strummed moments that are numbingly depressing, but also carefully articulated moments of finding enlightenment and beauty in solitude.
04. Radiator Hospital, Torch Song (Salinas Records)
Radiator Hospital has been discreetly breaking hearts for the past few years with a number of earnestly killer EPs, but last summer’s Something Wild proved to many new listeners that Sam Cook-Parrott is one of the strongest songwriters around. His second full-band record, Torch Song, only reinforced this notion, pitting fans to debate which album is stronger. The latter revives the themes of heartbreak, rejection, and desire that Cook-Parrott so bravely confronts on past releases, but the lyrics feel more mature this time around. Not a single raucous note or fervent sentiment is careless in this record; the stakes are high and romance or heartbreak are both fresh wounds. The record moves as quickly as falling in love, but when it finally slows down for the distressingly beautiful “Fireworks”, the world feels like it is slowly crashing around you. Torch Song does nothing wrong but move you.
03. Open Mike Eagle, Dark Comedy (Mello Music Group)
Dark Comedy is impressive in that it manages to stall the world of Open Mike Eagle without lapsing into cruise control—no learning, no hugging. It’s a catch-up record for the many newcomer to his art rap that he’s earned in the past year with appearances on Marc Maron’s podcast, paling around with comedians like Hannibal Burress and Paul F. Tompkins, and eventually signing to Mello Music Group. For those on board since Unapologetic Art Rap, Mike’s fourth album is like watching Seinfeld from Day 1—we’re laughing ahead of everyone else because we know all the inside jokes. It also manages to be his strongest album to date; accessible yet uncompromising in identity. Much like audiences were initially unaccustomed to Seinfeld, Dark Comedy has the potential to be Open Mike’s Season 4. What’s beneficial for Mike Eagle are offerings like “Deathmate Black” and “Build Pretty Bridges”, which are amalgamations of writing the same song (show?) a dozen times over to share with a dedicated core only to have the perfected versions broadcast to the Neilsens.
Mitski’s third album and first release with Double Double Whammy aligns with the quality of many of the label’s releases—strong melodies and honest, biting lyrics—but it also feels like somewhat of a departure from any familiar ground. Falling somewhere amid folk, pop, and breezy electric guitar rock, Bury Me at Makeout Creek doesn’t make concessions to any one genre. In fact, it doesn’t really make concessions to anyone or anything, and its utter repulsion of convention is what makes it so appealing. What we expect from a folk singer-songwriter, or an artist on DDW, or a music composition major, is none of what we get from Mitski; what we get instead is a sublime mesh of these elements and more that’s harrowing in its strength. Mitski’s tremendous expression of vulnerability is all her own, and how we relate to it depends on who we are—no concessions made.
01. Priests, Bodies and Control and Money and Power (Don Giovanni)
Capitalism’s most pervasive consequences are so big that sometimes they can’t be seen at all—the inequality of the medical industrial complex, the injustice of the surveillance state, the grim realities of the police force. Or perhaps its that most humans would prefer to look away. Within the first minutes of Bodies and Control and Money and Power, Katie Alice Greer finds words for tensions so intangible, tearing into the fucked duality of apathy and anxiousness: “Facing fear only when you have to, consequences only when you have to / When you are thinking, ‘if I don’t I might, if I don’t I might die.'” Her frantic scream is similar on “Doctor”: “You put your fingers in other people’s mouthes all day, don’t you, doctor?” The doctor will get you sick with his dirty hands and then sell you cough syrup to fight it — it’s a jab at the professional, but also at the paranoid norms who buy into it, guilty as charged. “The cough you’ve got has a syrup / So swallow it up, swallow it up!”
Bodies shifts between tight, slow builds and explosive moments — the work of drummer Daniele Daniele, guitarist G.L. Jaguar, and bassist Taylor Mulitz. It’s a record that’s unafraid to take on political topics in direct language, and its one that feels particularly vital in the mess of a year that was 2014. “BARACK OBAMA KILLED SOMETHING IN ME, AND I’M GONNA GET HIM FOR IT,” Greer concludes near the end of the album’s closing track, “And Breeding”. In a year marked by the failures of a government that once represented such inspired hope, this song rang true over and over again. Greer’s words belong permanently in all-caps, or better yet, perpetually belted in her forceful shout.
Fatima Al Qadiri, Asiatisch (Hyperdub)
If Shanzhai is how the East sees the West, then Fatima Al Qadiri is returning the favor with Asiatisch. Unlike Shanzhai however, Al Qadiri’s presentation is done with such pristine measure, that the end product is nothing short of gorgeous. The Senegal-born, and Kuwaiti-raised Al Qadiri told Rookie that her goal was to create a work of “dislocated stereotypes” pertaining to the fetishization of certain aspects of Chinese culture, though the result might end up like that of another famous aural representation of the East through Western stereotypes, Wu-Tang Clan: A popularity beyond the scope of her most recent subject matter.
The delicacy in Los Angeles Police Department lies in how uninterested Ryan Pollie is in working these problems through to resolution. We cave. We are the only ones. We come through, again. This is a little slice of life’s complex and unresolved pageant. The architecture of the arrangements remains simple, the hooks resting on the repetition of a few familiar notes. For songs worked through in the bedroom, Los Angeles Police Department emerges as a record intended to plumb the depths of both the self and the outside world and is proof it can be both more than that and nothing else at the same time.
Pure X, Angel (Fat Possum)
Pure X embody the very euphoria of the substance their name evokes through their work, which often oscillates between gentle swathes of noise and woozy vocals. The Austin-based band has mentioned that the appeal is the blankness, yet through their work the quartet animates a vivacious spirit of love. Illustrated through it’s kitschy cover, Pure X conceptually explores opening up one’s heart on Angel, a documentation of falling madly and deeply for someone, and what that process might entail.
Northtown is named after the neighborhood where Bailey grew up—a suburban community dotted with farms and Mormon churches, it couldn’t be further from the archetypal image of a brightly lit Vegas strip of the town Shamir Bailey called home when writing his Godmode debut. The Northtown EP is a fresh-sounding mix of seemingly antithetical concepts—mutant disco sharing space with unadorned country balladry, whirring synths and siren noises underscoring complex meditations on faith and identity. And then there’s his voice, an unaffected, almost childlike instrument that plays with typical delineations of age and gender.
The growth is crew-wide on So It Goes. The expansion of the sound is done so with collective consciousness, each member fills a role, and while So It Goes opens the door of the rat lair to outside influence, it’s done with reservation.
So It Goes makes a concerted effort to cage itself. Wiki and Hak trap the lyrical content into their immediate experiences, while Sporting Life seems content to rehash the structural foundations of past work—with the exception of “Puerto Rican Judo” and “Eat”.
Grouper, the creation of Liz Harris’ breathy voice and elegiac piano, suggests something of a divergent pathway toward the question of access and boundaries on her tenth full-length LP, the achingly beautiful, Ruins. Ultimately, like so much inscrutable and mesmerizing art, we both do and don’t ever get her.
Harris has thrown open her windows and her past on Ruins, singing her listener into sleep on “Holding”, the album’s second-longest and best track. The intimacy is undeniable whether we ever get any closer to grasping Ruins or Harris, or merely just appear to foreshorten the distance to ourselves.
“No one likes to feel like a tourist, I feel like I’m one here,” sings Allo Darlin’s Elizabeth Morris on “Santa Maria Novella”. It’s an appropriate sentiment to hear coming from someone like Morris, an Australian ex-pat who recently moved from London to Florence. Making sense of the rootlessness that comes with moving your whole life somewhere completely new, plus being in a touring band, We Come From The Same Place is full of relatable wordplay; Morris reflects on touring dusty towns of student bars, being excited to see a particular person out in the crowd at her show, airport phone calls, how another year can go by so fast
Girlpool exploded into the world delivering punches to every jerk, hugs to all the sweethearts, and seven songs that remain impossible to forget. From the very first sassy bass line on “Blah Blah Blah”, Harmony Tividad and Cleo Tucker promised and delivered an EP full of empowering, unhinged jams without a drummer thank-you-very-much. But in its quieter moments, the Girpool EP reveals an unabashed vulnerability that is arguably more powerful than the record’s loudest moments. Girlpool is able to command purely through their voices and minimal instrumentation; they are storytellers who sing in clear, direct voices.
Whereas on their first album, each track felt like a vehicle to showcase the technical ability of Mike and El P, RTJ2’s high points feel as though their technical abilities are a necessary component of a song with its own motives, a single cog that supports the piece. With two critically-acclaimed albums from Run the Jewels in just two years, the duo seems to have finally found the winning formula they’d been searching for.
Typical System sees Total Control finally reconciling their many faces, unwilling, or perhaps unable, to confine themselves to any specific genre. They pull together their extensive influences and expand on them with brazen coolness, achieving an eclectic sound that’s just consistent enough, but also unique in a way that stands out from its forebears.
Contrary to what its title would suggest, Lese Majesty is more than half seduction—at times, Ishmael Butler’s magnetic presence seems like the only consistent guide in this sneaky, zigzagging album. But Lese Majesty’s very real (if sometimes perplexing) power derives from a certain harmony of opposites: just listen to “Ishmael”, which combines some of the album’s most boastful tough-talking with its sweetest production, an almost childlike tinker-toy fantasia of woozy synths and shuffling beats. “Mimicking gods,” Butler intones robotically in its first few seconds, a promise that what’s to come will be something tempting and untouchable.
Rips is a revelation in tight, punk readings of power-pop influences and endless shining hooks. Joined by bassist/singer Betsy Wright (Childballads, Fire Tapes) and drummer Laura Harris (Aquarium, Benjy Ferree), its masterful sound is evidently the result of many collaborators, but it feels seamless from start to end. It has “fuck you’s” to bullies, revenge anthems aimed at exes, and sneering rips into dudes who just can’t communicate.
Sunbathing Animal takes the youth-addled immediacy of Light Up Gold and reduces it to a slow, careful simmer. A little bit creaky and still rather insecure, album closer “Into the Garden” leaves plenty of room for interpretation. “You’re not the same old fool you once took yourself for,” Andrew Savage realizes on a sleepless night, but time continues to pass, and there’s too much path ahead that remains unknown. As with all great adventures, there’s a beginning and an end; in the case of Parquet Courts, we’re still somewhere in the middle of the journey.
Sophomore records are a time for reinvention. That’s what history has led us to expect. When artists choose not to deviate from their originally laid-out path, even just slightly, they often face harsh judgment. On Television Man, Naomi Punk’s approach is familiar: sinking percussion, vague, distant guitar sounds, and barely intelligible, ghostly vocals. In place of sharp punk aggression, there’s dark thrashing that’s painstakingly delicate. The formula remains the same, but two years removed from The Feeling, its effects are even mightier. Highly addictive, Television Man is a carefully choreographed dance through the mind.
The nimbly crafted world of Frankie Cosmos is written like a children’s book. From the characters—imaginary friends and animal grief—to the language, marked by childish head-shaking and pouting, Zentropy is whimsical and wide-eyed and colorful. Greta Kline, who has long been making music under pseudonyms like Ingrid Superstar and Cosmos, risks isolating listeners with her tendency to filter through adolescence, to sweeten rather than sharpen, to feel hard and fall hard. But it’s in this tendency that Zentropy particularly shines, serving as a blithe reminder that delicious pain can be even more fulfilling when we remember it in retrospect.
Jerry Paper, Big Pop for Chameleon World (Orange Milk Records)
The character that is Jerry Paper (Lucas Nathan is merely the tangible host body) took full form on Big Pop for Chamelion World as a sad and lonely entity roaming the virtual reality we’ve come to know as the Internet. Searching for truth in a world of digital lies and deception, Paper wrestles with the alternate reality of the cyber world, what is real and what is “synthesized.” While the record touches on many deeply embedded meta-world conceptions, it’s an excellently polished and composed work of pop music. It’s an intimate and infectious record, with Jerry Paper’s monotonous-yet-humorous vocals as our guide through cyber-space.
Arca, Xen (Mute)
On initial listen, it’s off-putting, abrasive and ostentatious—nothing more than a slapped-together collection of violin squeaks and running machinery. But after a couple rewinds, one finds that Xen is just a misunderstood album that requires careful listening; a pondering of the silences in between apocalyptic arpeggios, the sudden, skittery stops and all of the sonic barrages that make up many of the interludes. Because if you’re patient enough, it’s one of the rawest releases you’ll hear this year, its terrifying glitch samples and dissonant clatter best described as the flickering soundtrack for some sort of Black Mirror-esque dystopia.
Those who know Lee Bannon primarily from his recent collaborations with Joey Bada$$ are likely to have a jaw-dropping moment upon listening to his latest album for Ninja Tune. However, staying musically grounded in one place was never one of this producer’s finer qualities. Unpredictable and engaging, Alternate/Endings displays Lee Bannon truly coming into his own as a producer, relying upon the need to experiment that has gotten him this far to propel even further into new worlds of sound and rhythm.
Swaddled in warm synths and muffled percussion, Dan Bodan’s Soft is a sweet, quiet storm-esque swoon that’s saddled with an incredible feeling of earnest reflection and introspection. “Soft as rain, you fall on me,” he croons on “Soft As Rain” in between gentle oohs and ahhs lovingly stitched together by NYC-based production virtuoso Great Skin, and that’s all you need to start the slow, gradual melt. Like being caught in the middle of a slick summer rainstorm, it’s imbued with an intoxicating sense of lust and longing desire. The soundtrack to all your late night summer dalliances, just start listening and see how long you can hold out for.
Martha, Courting Strong (Salinas)
Martha’s debut album proved that the four piece from Pity Me, Durham are master noise pop storytellers. Over the course of ten songs, Courting Strong weaves academia, anarchy, and adolescence into tales deeply rooted in a distant village, but the essence and passion are immediately relatable. Set against crashing instrumentals and shifting vocal responsibilities, Martha is constantly on the verge of exploding particularly in “Bubble In My Bloodstream”, which finally bursts into a full-blown euphoria. When the dust finally settles, you will be left standing in awe of Martha; you will be courting strong.
Cities Aviv, Come To Life (Young One Records)
Come To Life is a split between two intentions; the first is escaping the gridlock and the latter is a rapturous journey through a portal. Existing in the elbow of the record is “Perpetuate The Real,” in which Mays seeks genuine interaction over an emoji, stating “there ain’t no Google definition for the way you feel.” It’s also touched upon in earlier works like “Simulation” on Black Pleasure (“is you real or a simulation? / is you real or assimilatin’?”); Mays asks more of his generation and rap associates. It’s easy to give in to the digital low road ahead, but Cities Aviv is about looking higher towards escape portals, extending a hand to join him to the next gateway.
After 2013’s Mowgli on Lefse, Mister Lies surprised fans by announcing in May that his next record would be Orchid Tapes, this year’s indie label du jour with universally-lauded releases by Bilinda Butchers, Ricky Eat Acid, and Alex G. While the Flood You/Medusa digital single aligned Nick Zanca’s sound closer to the heady-IDM-offset-by-club-play guilty pleasures that we’ve come to love from acts like The Range, Mister Lies’ Orchid Tapes debut carries an emotional weight that is reserved for soundtracking moments of existential crisis and loss.
Ontario Gothic is a huge leap forward for Foxes In Fiction; where most of his previous works incorporate elements of phonography (the art of field-recording) and sampling to create vast and ambient soundscapes, this new album introduces a much more accessible pallet of a highly-tuned pop sensibility (Speaking of Pallett, he’s on the album, Owen that is, he plays violin on five out of the seven tracks). But even still, there is always a shield between FIF and listener, a forcefield that requires a little digging to get to the other side in order to find out what’s happening behind that washed-out field of ambiguity.
NVM should not be written off as a simple surf garage album. While the band’s image may seem goofy, they do not simply sing about sunshine and weed. Not only does Tacocat encourage physical escape, they are vocal about sexism, both in their songs and in real life. They are not Bikini Kill, and neither is every other band with predominantly female members. TacocaT express their politics in a unique form, preferring fun to anger, which contributes to the approachability of NVM.
Yumi Zouma, Yumi Zouma (Cascine)
The three members of Yumi Zouma once lived together in Christchurch, New Zealand, but the separation did not hinder their friendship in songwriting. The trio sent drafts via email, letting the lingering connection of a shared house lost in the 2011 New Zealand earthquake be the guiding light to their self-titled EP’s first single “The Brae”. Closer, “Riquelme” beckons for more responsibility in a fluctuating relationship, but the textures come from a far darker place than on “A Walk Home For Parted Lovers”. With strength in brevity, the four-song EP presents Yumi Zouma as having great command over the dream pop genre,and an excitement towards an upcoming full length release.
Entitled Opus 3: Man Atop The Tower, Signor Benedick enlisted the mixing and mastering assistance of Jonathan Snipes (clipping.) and Thomas Dimuzio to give his latest effort the finest of tuning, but he remains the mastermind of the record. The preview of “Dawn” from the record is merely a snippet version that falls to pieces just as a soaring guitar solo begins to take flight, SB the Moor has managed to write the rap-version of “November Rain”. Are these the brilliant musings of a mad man or the internal tortures of a king? Is the Man Atop the Tower simply a recluse or is there more to him than his tower? These are the questions raised in SB the Moor’s opera in rap-form.
In their latest release, Dancin’ With Wolves, Nashville trio Natural Child pair their traditional Southern blues/rock/country brew with a well-poured shot of bar-hardened hilarity. Whether it’s a harmonica or hard-and-fast strumming, Natural Child always sound like an almost unbelievable time capsule back into a good-time country bar, wobbling around the lines of reality like a giggling drunk. It’s fun, feel-good music designed for one-ounce doses.
Here to challenge our perceptions of reality, multi-verses, and how we experience the past, present, and future; meet the Underwater Peoples’ co-founder Evan Brody’s musical alter ego, Evan Ønly. Evan Ønly turns back the clock from 2014 to somewhere around 1984, where the past presents vague premonitions for the future in the way that that the unconscious world of dreams impacts and informs the conscious waking state. While these former events and understood sensory becomes forgotten by the opened eyes, that luster of lucidity becomes projected like a silhouette on the wall at the congregational dawning of daylight.
Tweens melted our hearts last year with a demo that held a handful of tinny recordings and a lot of promise. Singer / guitarist Bridget Battle’s songwriting and singing are pure, primed pop with a slim slice of garage punk to give it a bit of fling for it’s swing, while Peyton’s bass pace across the song like an angry drunk looking for an excuse to throw the half-full bottle at someone’s head. Even with a recent line-up shuffle that sees the departure of back up vocalist and drummer Jerri Queen, they still managed to capture all the raw energy we love about the band when we see them live. We could gush about them more, but I’m certain they’d rather we be mean.
In July 2013, Castle debuted on Mello Music Group with Gasface, a solid self-contained (i.e., self-produced) outing and introduction to the North Carolina rapper. His delivery was gruff, which was offset by a diverse ear for production that explored soul-tinged traditionalist sounds and boss level, glitch rap. Fellow labelmate Has Lo was such a fan of Gasface, he envisioned an entirely new identity for it, putting Castle back in the lab to re-record verses, adding his own verses and production style, to create Return of the Gasface (The Has Lo Passages). It’s like if Darren Aronofsky loved The Dark Knight and so he gathered up the actors, dusted off the sets, and refilmed it, just because it felt like it was a good idea.
The proper debut from 23-year-old singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Ben Asbury, who’s been recording solo under the Axxa/Abraxas moniker since 2011, this self-titled full-length primarily contains re-recordings of prior cassette scribbles. While Asbury’s opening salvo is less than distinctive, it also boasts an atmosphere that feels as comfortably lived-in as Salvation Army-bought denim; even when arriving at a vaguely elegiac tone, the record provides enigmatically stoney road-trip and bonfire fuel that so pleasantly begs for inclusion in your listening rotation, it’s difficult to outright decline.
From the indolent and lost years, frontman Alessandro Paderno seeks a balance within the scales of life that makes sense with a sentimental set of songs that assert the resolve of self-affirmation. Le Man Avec Les Lunettes rewrite the lullaby books of tradition throughout the album. The push to get back in tune to nature and the world around is explicitly sung on, “Get in Touch”, to the closing ode to musical exchanges and conversational correspondence by, “Postcards”. Make It Happen makes its exit like its entrance, with gorgeous choral pop lullabies to soothe the aches of the world with something beautiful.
There’s a ferocity that runs through Histrionic that lays defiant claim to the titular adjective, a term disproportionately aimed at women, and often at female vocal performances. Along with the increasingly dance-oriented music, this implicit idea strengthens a symbolic lineage between Maria Juur and other lo-fi disco chanteuses like Cristina, who presented a vaguely satirical, intellectualized version of the pop diva image. The hand-stitched sound quality is still there, but the music is more consistently immersive, and in that context her voice sounds more magnetic than ever. Wolf or lamb, Histrionic proves that Juur is capable of courting a wider audience without dulling her personality.
A collaboration with The Haxan Cloak’s Bobby Krlic, I Shall Die Here is utterly refreshing, as it is neither metal or noise but manages to balance the best parts of both while sacrificing redundancy, posturing and machismo. There are still moments of the classic sulking bass, grisly samples and slow driving drums, but many of the tracks are “cut up” and reinvented. The vocals are not always tough, sometimes they sound like unbridled shrieks of raw agony. Punishing drums blanketed by white hot noise, drum machines and unlikely breakdowns, blood-curdling screams are all seamlessly orchestrated to create something that is beyond genre, which is just what The Body were going for.
Tonstartssbandht, Overseas (Arbutus Records)
Welcome your psych jam of the summer. The brothers Eddie and Andy White have been at the forefront of the new-wave psychedelic jam circuit (if there is such a thing) for so long, it’s sometimes a failure of the music critic to realize just how good these guys are. Thankfully, Overseas came out just in time to remind us all. Recorded during the sibling’s European tour in the Spring of last year, spending much time in Putin’s Russia, Overseas highlights the White’s ability to mix everything from kraut to classic rock in a fashion the inexplicably works on every level.
The challenge of defining genre is True Neutral Crew’s modus operandi. The dystopian destruction of “More A Kid” featuring the doomed production of Robedoor extends the context further, proving TNC has no regard for our comfort zones and preconcieved notions. By the time closer “Can’t Stop Loving You” hits us, idealism is dead, replaced with the Portugeuse crooning of Algodón Egipcio over a wailing post punk beat. #POPPUNK inverts expectation at every turn, alive with punk spirit in the most purest and base of definitions. If you can’t hear it as punk, then you’ve never really understood the definition.
Oakland’s Never Young are a two-headed outfit that specialize in deflating the bubble of pop punk with artful noise, or perhaps sweeten the rampage of art punk with their bleeding hearts. Whichever suites your needs, Never Young attack their recordings as though noise and pop aesthetic are not mutually exclusive, but rather passionately involved.
FKA Twigs, LP1 (Young Turks)
LP1 is an album almost as beautiful as the doe-eyed singer’s tender voice, brimming with raw sexuality and unfiltered emotion. It’s a beautiful ode to careful love, the all-too-real hesitation that stems from the kind of head-spinning, earth-shattering lust we all feel from time to time. And best of all, Twigs is completely unapologetic in her vulnerability, a refreshing, intriguing perspective we don’t hear nearly enough of today.
Evian Christ, Waterfall EP (Tri Angle Records)
Zero fucks given towards Evian Christ being in Kanye’s inner circle. The Waterfalls EP arrives on our list due to its ruinous approach to trap, a genre that reached a death knell of saturation in 2014.
In a four-song cycle, Evian Christ is assured and unapologetic in his onslaught of nocturnal terror synths atop low end slaps. The ambience is minimal, only slight reprieve, and thusly, the Waterfalls EP is best heard in a colossal setting, aware of our dystopian arrival.
G-Side, Gz II Godz (Self Released)
Reformed after a brief hiatus, G-Side cleansed the bad blood from the system on Gz II Godz.
Presented as a digital movie on Youtube, Gz II Godz opens with St 2 Lettaz putting the call out like a modern day Paul Revere to spread the word of the return. Throughout the record, samples of Huey P. Newton speeches and visuals of Black Panthers are utilized as militant propaganda depicting G-Side as a movement once again. And in a year of significant social upheaval, Gz II Godz was a preempted #BlackLivesMatter, proving it was in the air long before people held up traffic for justice.
Party Jail clocks in at thirteen songs and right about 26 minutes. In this short period of time, it courses through many dualities with ease, crafting little utopias and then directly following them with dystopian realizations—Schrader muses hypothetically on crucifiction in the piledriving “Radio Eyes”, speaks towards intense disillusionment in “No Fascination”. Perhaps it’s a cruel irony that Party Jail was released roughly around the same time that the Party Monster Michael Alig was released from prison, but the record arguably depicts desire with the capacity to imprison instead of liberate.
On United, the full-length from Gold Robot Records that’s been years in the making, Dan Casey offers up the same personal, intimate recording touches from his solo work alongside his digital creations. And as alluded to with the wood shavings on the cover of United, there is a feeling that every track and sound was whittled from a natural, local resource.
We are in an era of rap in which Jay-Z’s “Sensitive thugs, ya’ll all need hugs” lyric from 2001’s “Heart of the City” sounds like it was written from a bygone era of hypermasculinity and trauma buried behind the guise of stoicism as the American way. Enter independent’s answer to the major label sadboys, Antwon with his Heavy Hearted in Doldrums—a record that struggles with being one of the guys and being an individual equally. The record’s greatest strength is its presence at functions and behind everyday windows looking out on rainy days, rather than behind velvet ropes and looking out on city lights from re-inforced, private high rise compounds.
Makthaverskan will have to write some phenomenal songs in their time if they want to ever overcome being the band with the song that goes, “fuck you for fucking me / when I was 17.” The Swedish post-punk band might not know it yet, but lyrics with that level of emotional baggage are poised to send hearts collapsing into shoes. “No Mercy” is a song that will give women knowing empathy and perhaps peace of mind, while men are offered a rare glimpse into a psyche that exists because of our hubris. As devious as they are presented in “No Mercy”, the anthemic swell should supplant the guilt trip.
Seek Warmer Climes challenges their past comparisons and misconceptions of being a stereotypical Danish punk band. While the album is by all accounts a carefully constructed, noisy punk record, it rarely recycles the seething fury of Walk on Heads. In fact, the album is quite upbeat and focuses on expanding and opening one’s own mind. Even the title signals an optimistic outlook. Furthermore, Lower has the hunger and the drive to separate themselves from their punk peers. As Seek Warmer Climes displays, their quest towards reinvention, both musically and personally, is just beginning.
Krill, Steve Hears Pile in Malden and Bursts Into Tears (Exploding In Sound)
Who’s Steve? Steve looks at a turd in the toilet fighting the swirling flush to remain afloat in the bowl and says, “yep, that’s me.” Steve cried when he heard Pile because it was beautiful and brave and it made him feel unworthy. Steve had the same problem encountering roadkill. Steve woke up on the wrong side of the bed and wrote five songs about his inertness, and there’s a chance Steve doesn’t know it was a brilliant and brave act. Who’s Steve? All we can tell you is if your friend’s artistic bravery has ever put the fear of inferiority into your heart, then you know Steve.
USF, SIMISM (Ceremony Recordings)
Similarly to how Jason and Kyle were able to bring the nü-dance sounds of Stockholm to Seattle on past releases, the two re-examine facets of Chicago dance in the outcome of two years building, designing, defining, designating, and then, re-designing, re-defining, and re-designating the metrics and algorithms involved in the development of their trickiest, and possibly best, work to date.
If nuclear radiation degrades DNA, couldn’t it also enhance it? On their newest album, OOIOO also use gamelan instruments to probe the limits of body music in the age of cyborgs. Gamel works as dense fodder for athletic listeners, and maybe as a revelation for those who haven’t yet found the right musical language to validate their 21st century nervousness.
Produced by LA-based multi-instrumentalist Caleb Stone, Across is Kilo Kush’s follow-up effort to last year’s K+ tape, which earned her a fair amount of critical praise. And while it was a much-lauded effort, Across sees Kish finally shedding K+’s jaded, love-lorn quips in favor of more rambling, self-reflective musings. As a result, there’s an honest sense of impatient restlessness pervading the entire EP, born from a conceptual project to record her journey on a great American roadtrip last year. Versatile and meandering, it’ll make a perfect soundtrack for that long, lonely trek across the plains.
Sacramento punks G. Green’s latest album Area Codes is about a band trapped between two worlds; a band that’s right on the cusp of maturity, both sonically and emotionally; a band that’s trying to hone its aesthetic without giving up its identity. Luckily, this is an undertaking in which G. Green is remarkably successful.
For his New York Telephone record, Uncommon NASA is adopting the outmoded pay phone as a symbolic token for a bygone New York City to demonstrate his ill communication to the past. New York Telephone transports the listener to a pre-9/11 Big Apple, before Bloomberg swept Times Square sterile, before Williamsburg was its sister neighborhood of bougie tourist gawkers, and before the bodegas were replaced with Whole Foods.
Something about the empty parts draws Nicole Miglis in. There’s something in the deserts, the plains, the strips of road where no one lives. That’s the part she likes most on tour. The empty part. Hundred Waters’ second album sheds the pastoral husks that compelled critics to describe them as folk music the first time around. It’s much dreamier, more electronic, and relies more on Miglis’ voice. They’ve always strained past the templates laid out for them. Now, they may well be drawing their own.
Marissa Nadler, July (Sacred Bones)
In 2014, Marissa Nadler continued proving herself as a prolific songwriter who does not make a bad album. Her sixth full-length in ten years, July was also her first for Sacred Bones and was produced by Randall Dunn, a previous collaborator with Earth, Sunn O))), and Wolves in the Throne Room.Full of stark spook-folk and dream-pop, July also contained some of her most inward-looking poetry to date, and some of her most beautiful songs yet, like the devastating “Firecrackers” and “Holiday In”.
All Perfect Hair must achieve is to never alienate the faithful fans who never wavered. If that’s the litmus test, then Perfect Hair is flawless. Throughout Perfect Hair the stylistic flair and esotericism synonymous with past albums is blunted from a desire to be understood. The album title might suggest egotism, but for the past year Busdriver has invited the layman’s language into his lexicon. So what happens to the genius between two epochs? Well, if he’s strong of will he never lets the FOMO eat at his delicate brain and carries on with diligence until that second big bang. He colonizes the moon when everyone else assumed life could not sustain.
The Gradients, The Gradients (Self Released)
We’ve done our fair share of trying to explain who and what The Gradients are. What we do know (because they told us) is that, “The Gradients are a quartet born and raised in Brooklyn. Each member of the band contributes equally to making heavy, melodic and catchy songs without the use of effects. They are heavily influenced by ’70s New York punk as well as the ’90s Chapel Hill/D.C. scenes.” Sounding a clear and melodious pop-grunge call, The Gradients provided one of the best backward-looking records of 2014 without a label or PR team behind it.