The 50 Best Albums Of 2014 So Far

The 50 Best Albums Of 2014 So Far

Great music has come from just about every corner of the musical map this year, and on this list of our favorites of the year’s first half, there’s no real connecting thread. An ambitious all-over-the-place album from a big-money Nashville country mainstay is just as likely to rule as, say, a mixtape from a pair of Atlanta rap weirdos, or a Southern doom-metal trudge, or a sparkling and breezy piece of conceptual dance music, or a gut-ripping neo-folk record. But in our top three, you’ll find two heavy, sprawling slabs of death-obsessed darkness from songwriters who are decades into their careers but who are just hitting new strides now. If those made up our top two, we might be tempted to call this the Year of the Craggy Old Bastard. But right between them, there’s an effortlessly listenable album of lightly stoned ’80s radio-rock. So you figure it out. Nothing in music this year makes a lot of sense, but a lot of it is great anyway.


Strand Of Oaks - HEAL (Dead Oceans)

HEAL is an album about clinging to music when you've got nothing else left, about the way your favorite songs can help you escape from reality's most painful moments but also help you muster the strength to get back out there and face those moments. In that sense, it is an echo. A lot of troubled people will undoubtedly be turning to Timothy Showalter's latest in the same way he turned to Smashing Pumpkins or Songs: Ohia in his time of need. Whatever they're facing, they have his sweet tunes to play. --Chris [LISTEN]


100s - IVRY (Fool’s Gold)

The Bay Area rapper 100s does cold-blooded pimp-rap so icily controlled that it's almost prim, and he has the sense of hilarity that only a true dandy can show, kicking women out for trying to steal his conditioner. And now that he's on Fool's Gold, he's got a roster of producers capable of cranking out the sharp, glinting '80s synth-funk that his style demands. The result: the cleanest, prettiest, straight-up funkiest rap mixtape of the year, a genre exercise realized expertly. --Tom [LISTEN]


clipping. - CLPPNG (Sub Pop)

You know how some people really love pickle-and-peanut-butter sandwiches? I've eaten some weird shit, but I've yet to summon the courage to try that one. People always struggle to explain why it's good -- it just works. That's how clipping. are with their combo of hip-hop and harsh noise. The former comes lightning fast, hyper-articulated, darkly funny, and the latter creatively finds ways to incorporate digital scree, tape loops, and industrial clangs into a hip-hop production. Throw in two female guest rappers, one an all-time great and the other a fierce up-and-comer and, the why doesn't really matter. CLPPNG just works. --Miles [LISTEN]


tUnE-yArDs - Nikki Nack (4AD)

While it must have been tempting to overreach or bring in a crowd of collaborators after the massive success of W H O K I L L, Merrill Garbus instead took her time crafting a sequel that boils down her sound to its purest form. That purity shines through the knottiest, most percussion-heavy music Nate Brenner and Garbus have crafted yet, but really this entire thing is carried by Garbus as performer. Her vocal range has widened to include the tenderest coos and the wildest squawks, her lyrics have grown to share insecurities and hilarious punchlines, even squeezing in a creepy/funny bedtime story. tUnE-yArDs always had detractors, but Garbus isn't trying to compromise or win them over on Nikki Nack, and it's freeing and inspiring. --Miles [LISTEN]


St. Vincent - St. Vincent (Republic/Loma Vista)

Self-titled albums, when they're not a debut, often seem to have an extra air of importance to them, the suggestion of a reintroduction. It's exciting then that St. Vincent finds Annie Clark at her most unhinged and musically ambitious ... also throw in catchiest, funniest, and provocative, too. Most of this album moves with an easy strut; Clarke chooses the strangest possible palette of sound and crafts an album of her most satisfying songs yet. St. Vincent is a perfect reminder that experimental music and pop music don't have to be mutually exclusive. --Miles [LISTEN]


Beck - Morning Phase (Capitol)

Six years he's been gone. Or not gone, exactly, but living the life of a famous tinkerer, a celebrity in repose. He's produced, he's guested, he's fucked around with a series of pet projects. And now that he's ready to get back to the business of making albums, he's returned with a piece of simple, sparkling beauty, less complicated than anything he's ever made before, and maybe prettier. In self-consciously putting together a sequel to Sea Change, one of his finest works, Beck has gone back to the beautifully bummed '70s singer-songwriter style that he does better than anyone of his generation has a right to do. The urgency might not be there -- no devastating heartbreak in his immediate past this time -- but the languid, expansive vibe remains. --Tom [LISTEN]


Actress - Ghettoville (Ninja Tune/Werk Discs)

If Actress' last album, R.I.P, was the sound of his avant-garde techno dying in real time, then his reportedly final album, Ghettoville, finds the music being sent to the most dismal afterlife. Beginning with lurching locomotive clangs and a drone flying in like a bomber on the horizon, Darren Cunningham infused this 70-minute-plus smudged-gray record of dance music deconstructions with more dread than ever before. Too elephantine to move to, and too agitated to zone out to, Ghettoville keeps you in a constant state of discomfort -- and we wouldn't have it any other way. --Miles [LISTEN]


Protomartyr - Under Color Of Official Right (Hardly Art)

There is deadpan humor all over Under Color Of Official Right, but only as a way to cope with the bleakness. In that way, Protomartyr has offered up a quintessential post-punk album. Here's another way: The album plays like a skewed remembrance of punk-rock's artsy side, not reflecting the members' record collections so much as refracting them. I can't figure out if it sounds like a vibrant cityscape decaying or a dead cityscape coming back to life. --Chris [LISTEN]


Fennesz - Becs (Editions Mego)

When you make something as unique and groundbreaking as Christian Fennesz did more than a decade ago with Endless Summer, it's understandable to resist potentially being stuck on that sound. He didn’t, and made two albums that were very good, but were clearly departures from the soft electronic bliss of his big album. Now Fennesz has finally returned to the sounds of Endless Summer -- and with just his guitar, fed through countless filters and computer patches, he has made a worthy sequel. It’s an album of guitar noise, drones, glitches, and static spun so expertly that it all becomes as pretty and golden as a setting sun. --Miles [LISTEN]


Alcest - Shelter (Prophecy)

Long before bands like Deafheaven and Woods Of Desolation were regularly supplying manna for those of us who can't quite stomach the bracing grotesqueness of black metal at its blackest, Alcest was out there blackgazin', blending black metal's shrill intensity with celestial beauty. On Shelter, that beauty is all that's left. It is a shoegaze album through and through, and it sounds not like shelter so much as soaring through the open sky, unencumbered and exhilarated. --Chris [LISTEN]


S. Carey - Range Of Light (Jagjaguwar)

It's hard enough for Justin Vernon to release albums from his other projects without the work being subjected to Bon Iver comparisons, so it's tough to imagine what doing the same must be like for one of the lesser known members of his band. And yet S. Carey more than rose to the occasion on the tender, beautifully arranged Range Of Light. From tender piano melodies, wildly diverse percussion, and delicately multi-tracked vocals bloomed a collection of nature-influenced songs that fell with the insistence and gentleness of a light summer rain. --Miles [LISTEN]


Sturgill Simpson - Metamodern Sounds In Country Music (High Top Mountain)

Subverting the rules of your genre is how music evolves, and Sturgill Simpson deserves credit for that here. Still, whatever short-term gasps and guffaws Simpson gets by following his muse from Jesus to "reptile aliens made of light," Metamodern Sounds in Country Music will endure as one of this young century's best traditionalist country records first and foremost because these songs could stand up to a kick from steel-toed boots. He's a master craftsman; his surreal flights of fancy are merely a bonus. --Chris [LISTEN]


The Hold Steady - Teeth Dreams (Washington Square)

The production, from major-label hired gun Nick Raskulinecz, has a bit of an unhealthy gleam to it, but otherwise, Teeth Dreams is a classic Hold Steady album, a clear statement of mastery from one of the surest bets on the touring circuit. Six albums in, the Hold Steady don't have too much new to teach us, but there's something about the way a perfect Craig Finn lyric ("Sat in the back of the theater, just drinking and talking/ About movies and Krishna and hardcore and Jesus and joy") will kick around in your head all day, or the way an emotive Tad Kubler solo will stab you in the heart. Forget whatever Heaven Is Whenever feelings you might've caught; their magic remains strong. --Tom [LISTEN]


Pure X - Angel (Fat Possum)

You ever hear an album that feels like one long, contented sigh while cracking open a beer after dinner and watching the sun set over the plains of Texas with your soulmate in 1972? Yeah, Angel is like that. --Chris [LISTEN]


Triptykon - Melana Chasmata (Prowling Death/Century Media)

As frontman of the vastly important avant-garde metal bands Celtic Frost and Hellhammer, Swiss orc-man Thomas Gabriel Fischer was figuring out new ways to channel darkness back when many of his present-day underground metal peers were hiding behind their living-room couches every time Skeletor came on the TV. With Melana Chasmata, Fischer has just dropped one of the heaviest anvils of his entire career. The album gracefully moves from majestic goth to grime-permeated sludge with an authority that only an OG like Fischer can bring, and its handful of genuinely beautiful moments never detract from its all-encompassing ugliness. --Tom [LISTEN]


Coldplay - Ghost Stories (Parlophone/Atlantic)

We're to understand that this is the Chris Martin Divorce Album, and if you really want to go into this thing looking for tabloidy lyrics about what it's like to break up with Gwyneth Paltrow, that's all there. But as always, if you're going into a Coldplay record for the lyrics, you're doing it wrong. But Ghost Stories also does something much more interesting: it shows how Coldplay can be a vital band in 2014. Over the course of the album, we hear them engage with the xx's subdued twinkle-pop and with Bon Iver's sad-robot soul music. We hear them bring in Avicii to produce a track and then forcibly strip away all the blinking neon sunglasses nonsense, leaving only sweep and thump. It's a canny piece of curation, a beautiful example of music as graphic design, and it shows us what can happen when one of the world's biggest bands takes a long, hard listen to everything that's happening around them. --Tom [LISTEN]


Perfect Pussy - Say Yes To Love (Captured Tracks)

I wish those mixed-with-menstrual-blood vinyl copies of Perfect Pussy's debut Say Yes To Love were pressed on only one side, and digital copies could have been condensed to a single track. That's because Perfect Pussy’s ramshackle punk songs function as a focused whole. Charging right from the start with "Driver" and "Bells,” the album hits a slightly dreamier note with "Interference Fits" -- the band’s finest song to date -- before diving into even more ambient territory. The last eight minutes of the album shifts to full instrumental noise-drift, which might seem insane for a record that’s barely more than 20 minutes long, but Perfect Pussy pull it off with unfathomable confidence. At this point they could do just about anything. --Miles [LISTEN]


Future - Honest (Epic)

Melting spaceship behemoth masterstroke "Move That Dope" alone would make Honest one of 2014's best. Same goes for anti-consumerist soul-food banger "Benz Friends (Whatchutola)." Both songs show Future flexing his agility alongside legendary MCs, his hulking verbiage speeding across these beats like Jadeveon Clowney running the 40. Not that he's abandoned the sentimental glop that cemented his star status (see: "I Won," which, sexist awkwardness aside, is great), but having proved he can pop, wheeze, and gurgle on Pluto, he's now reminding us he can rap. --Chris [LISTEN]


Total Control - Typical System (Iron Lung)

Given the pedigree of this Australian band -- former members of Eddy Current Supression Ring and UV Race, an old split LP with Thee Oh Sees -- you might expect Total Control to be unhinged garage-psych boogeymen. Instead, they've made an album of beautifully glassy, patient, metronomic postpunk, postpunk of the sort that wasn't being made during the initial postpunk era. Like Django Django, Total Control find ferocity in their staring-into-infinity motorik beats, but their clean production and sneaky hooks rule the day. Every punk band should use a synth this well. --Tom [LISTEN]


Duck Sauce - Quack (Fool's Gold)

Duck Sauce's semi-compilation Quack was one that people didn't quite lose their minds to, because some of these songs already caused us to lose our minds several years ago. But that's only an issue for people of the present; in hindsight, Quack will be thought of as the definitive statement from one of the most playful and infectious dance-pop groups of the last few years. From "Barbra Streisand" to "It's You," this is the long-playing and overdue victory lap they deserve. --Miles [LISTEN]


Tombs - Savage Gold (Relapse)

Tombs have been one of the best bands in the country since at least 2011, when they released their outstanding sophomore LP, Path Of Totality. Then, in 2013, Tombs core members Mike Hill (vocals/guitar) and Andrew Hernandez (drums) replaced former bassist Carson Daniel James with Ben Brand (of Woe), and added a second guitarist in the form of Garrett Bussanick, who previously played in the great, genre-destroying NYC metal bands Wetnurse and Flourishing. These additions felt both gluttonous and daunting, and the band's third LP, Savage Gold, finds the new lineup locked in. Where once Tombs' music included elements of post-metal and black metal, they're now playing a lean form of hardcore-based death metal (produced by ex-Morbid Angel/current Hate Eternal guitarist Erik Rutan) with a Godflesh-esque industrial chill and a Gorguts-ian avant-tech bent. Savage Gold is a display of power, skill, agility, speed, and endurance. Tombs are still one of the best bands in the country -- only now, they're even better. --Michael [LISTEN]


Sharon Van Etten - Are We There (Jagjaguwar)

Her voice is mesmerizing, and the music she builds around it grows more spellbinding with each release, but what really sells Sharon Van Etten's songs are the lyrics. Are We There is full of brutally honest statements about how impossible human life gets sometimes. "I need you to be afraid of nothing." "Burn my skin so I can't feel you." Even her humor cuts deep: "People say I’m a one-hit wonder, but what happens when I have two? I washed your dishes, but I shit in your bathroom." --Chris [LISTEN]


Future Islands - Singles (4AD)

If you've seen Future Islands live at any point in the past six years or so, you might feel vaguely protective of these three arted-out synthpop weirdos who have been touring up the DIY circuit and quietly amazing people all this time. So it's wonderfully heartening to see them step out into a huge spotlight, with a big label and slick production, writing big and catchy and moving songs but still retaining everything that was ever peculiar to them. Samuel T. Herring's scritchety soul-howl remains one of indie rock's most emphatic instruments, but now he's using it to sing songs that demand to be heard from open car windows and festival stages. --Tom [LISTEN]


The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart - Days Of Abandon (Yebo)

As genres go, indie-pop has long had the market cornered on longing. And whether Kip Berman is anticipating a future romance ("Simple And Sure") or mourning a past one ("Eurydice"), he channels that longing more magically than anybody in the game. Days Of Abandon is mostly a step back in scale from Belong's attempt at stadium status, yet these songs still feel like brightly glimmering worlds to themselves. --Chris [LISTEN]


Behemoth - The Satanist (Metal Blade)

These days, a Behemoth live set is as precisely structured (and elaborately costumed!) as a Cirque Du Soleil performance, so if you've seen the band at any point over the last few years, you've heard frontman Nergal "banter": "[Insert name of city], it feels good to be back! It feels even better … TO BE ALIVE!" That may seem a counterintuitive statement coming from the frontman of a, y'know, death-metal band, but when you're in the room with the guy, the words will hit you like a hard wind, and if you know the context, they'll knock you down. In 2010 Nergal was diagnosed with advanced-stage leukemia, and over the next two years, battled and beat the disease. The Satanist is his first post-cancer album (and Behemoth's first since 2009, and their best, period) and it feels like the work of a man who bested death. It's an album of experience, confidence, vision, wisdom, and depth -- not to mention hugely dynamic performances and ridiculous hooks. It's an album of tremendous bombast, yes, but that bombast is earned; every song bellows great gusts of life, and they will all knock you down. --Michael [LISTEN]


Parquet Courts - Sunbathing Animal (What's Your Rupture?/Mom + Pop)

When writing about Parquet Courts, it's hard not to just recite a bullet-pointed list of bands who they sort of sound like: Television! The Feelies! The Fall! The Strokes! The inevitable Pavement! That's because these guys sound like they've ingested and internalized the last three or four decades of too-smart-for-its-own-good guitar-based whiteboy indie rock, spluttering it back out into a tangled, tense, groggy, slack-but-jittery ball of exposed neuroses and sidelong observations. But on Sunbathing Animal, they're more than the sum of their parts, and those parts still complement each other, the tightly-wound angular guitars only hiding the densely poetic lyrics until you listen close. --Tom [LISTEN]


Angel Olsen - Burn Your Fire For No Witness (Jagjaguwar)

Angel Olsen’s early music had such a fragile ache that no accompaniment beyond an acoustic guitar felt appropriate, yet the dive into full rock songs on Burn Your Fire For No Witness couldn't have been more exciting. There were the solo numbers that ripped your heart out, whether they were as brief as opener "Unfucktheworld" or as towering as the seven-minute thousand-yard stare of "White Fire." Despite that title, we’ve all witnessed Angel Olsen burn brighter than ever this year. --Miles [LISTEN]


Cloud Nothings - Here And Nowhere Else (Carpark/Mom + Pop)

Dylan Baldi can dress up his music as dive-bar scrape-rock all he wants, and Jason Gerycz's savage thwacking goes a long way toward that end. Here And Nowhere Else is a crusher. But Baldi's still the prodigy who wrote "Can't Stay Awake" and "Turning On" as a teenager, a melodic whiz kid who'll never quite shake the shades of Weezer and Green Day that undercut even his vilest screams. He always had heart, and Attack On Memory proved he has backbone. Now we're getting the best of both worlds. --Chris [LISTEN]


You Blew It! - Keep Doing What You're Doing (Topshelf)

Keep Doing What You’re Doing indeed. Does this album display growth on You Blew It!'s part? Certainly. But it's mostly a refinement of a sound they've always practiced, a sound they borrowed from countless forebears, one built on cathartic howls and triumphant guitar parts piling up to the basement rafters. If any band deserves to get roped into the emo revival thing, it's these guys -- and if any band validates that enterprise, it's also these guys. --Chris [LISTEN]


Wye Oak - Shriek (Merge)

Why, Wye, why? That's what many of the faithful wondered when they learned Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack were forgoing guitars this time out. So much of the band's moody twilight allure was supplied by those six strings, be they deployed for effects-laden background noise or heroic lead lines. Turns out this band is fully capable of capturing that vibe with different tools -- and from the sound of Wasner's interviews, maybe only with different tools. They called it Shriek for a reason, but liberation left them sounding chiller than ever. --Chris [LISTEN]


Morbus Chron - Sweven (Century Media)

2014 has produced a pretty incredible trend of really fucking weird metal albums coming from young bands. For evidence of this, check out the recent releases from Thantifaxath, Emptiness, Pyrrhon, and Psalm Zero, among others. The apotheosis of this movement, though, is Sweven, the sophomore album from Swedish death metal band Morbus Chron. The album's title translates as "dream," and that's exactly what Sweven feels like: It's a shapeless, haunting, howling, creepy, beautiful creature, as impossible to pin down as it is to turn away from. Sweven uses elements of old-school death metal to cast its spell, but it feels more like a lost psychedelic folk album than an Autopsy retread. Sweven may not be the highest-ranking metal album on this list, but if you were to call it the best metal album of 2014, you wouldn't be wrong. --Michael [LISTEN]


Ben Frost - A U R O R A (Mute)

Ben Frost makes music that sounds like cataclysmic natural phenomena, but A U R O R A throws that same chaos into outer space. To put it another way, he's made the heaviest and most combustive electronic album of the year -- dance music that features a drummer from Swans. Frost himself described it best, though: "It should just feel like being in a fucking particular accelerator. I wanted it to feel like something being pulled apart. Just massive, massive amounts of energy condensed to a point, just fucking exploding and radiating out towards you. That’s what I want. It should feel like you’re being drenched, showered in photons." --Miles [LISTEN]


Agalloch - The Serpent And The Sphere (Profound Lore)

The last album from Portland, OR's Agalloch -- 2010's Marrow Of The Spirit -- felt like an apex for modern American heavy metal, a peak reached after years of climbing. In its wake the band (and the scene) should have had nowhere to go but down, but instead, Agalloch just went out. Where Marrow explored visions of earthbound mortality, The Serpent & The Sphere contemplates the vastness of the universe alongside concepts of eternal recurrence. It's heady stuff, and the album demands some dedication. But it's not all Sagan and Schopenhauer; The Serpent & The Sphere also finds Agalloch straight-up kicking ass harder and heavier than ever before. --Michael [LISTEN]


Young Thug & Bloody Jay - Black Portland (Self-released)

Atlanta rap has gone to delightfully weird places in the last few years, and Young Thug has emerged as its head weirdo in charge -- a wiry ball of high-pitched intonations, vaguely alien syntax decisions, and barely-human yelps. While Black Portland isn't a Thug solo project, it's still the strongest and purest full-length document of his hallucinatory aesthetic. On the mixtape, Thug and his almost-as-bugged-out partner Bloody Jay push each other to full haywire status, crooning about blood in their eye and emitting sudden bursts of concentrated double-time virtuosity over beats that gleam bright and thump hard. They don't give no fucks. --Tom [LISTEN]


Woods Of Desolation - As The Stars (Northern Silence)

About halfway through Sunbather's process of running the table in 2013, there were -- understandably -- predictions 2014 would bring a slew of sound-alikes. But that hasn't happened. So far, the only album this year that might fit that description is As The Stars, from the reclusive Australian band Woods Of Desolation. But WOD aren't influenced by Deafheaven -- if anything, they're an influence on Deafheaven -- and As The Stars isn't a lesser Sunbather: It's a rawer, harder, nastier product; less build more climax; street-level crack rather than fine Colombian. But it gets you just as high, and it's even more addictive. --Michael [LISTEN]


Lana Del Rey - Ultraviolence (Interscope)

Lana Del Rey couldn't satisfyingly flesh out her stunning "Video Games" shtick on Born To Die -- not that the album's mediocrity kept her from becoming a superstar. Still, it's a wonder what some time off and Dan Auerbach's influence did for her. This vision remains Lana's alone, but in Auerbach she's found exactly the old soul to realize it with. Ultraviolence lends rock 'n' roll edge to Lana's glamorous/pathetic doomed dame pastiche and ramps up the hallucinatory shimmer until immersing yourself in Technicolor melodrama feels like the only way to live. --Chris [LISTEN]


Todd Terje - It's Album Time (Olsen)

It's Album Time finds Todd Terje globetrotting on the same scale as Indiana Jones or James Bond as he crafts his own spy movie/dance odyssey. Beginning with the opening credit theme, we go from late-night Scandinavian streets an to intimate sunset groove in Acapulco, from sunny beach bars (the literal meaning of "Strandbar") to Miami Vice-esque car chases ("Delorean Dynamite"). The entire second half might as well take place in some crazy Moon Raker-style space adventure. It's all instrumental except for the Bryan Ferry centerpiece, on which Ferry sings Robert Palmer like the saddest drunk in the loneliest karaoke bar in the universe. It all flows perfectly, even though some of these songs were made years apart. It's Album Time amounts to one of the funnest hours of music this year, and it begs to be played on repeat. --Miles [LISTEN]


Thou - Heathen (Gilead Media)

New Orleans produces sludge bands the way University Of Kentucky produces NBA-ready talent: with remarkable consistency and an unusually high standard of quality. NOLA sludge has been a premium product since 1988, when Eyehategod formed, but even among such a peer group, Thou stand out. The Louisiana band's fourth full-length album, Heathen, layers grinding, industrial assault with explosive bursts and expansive webs of melody, and balances its gnarliest, hardest moments with passages of pastoral ambience. Pure sludge is cathartic noise, violence made sound, but in the hands of Thou, it feels like high art. Heathen is an album of tremendous sorrow, wonder, ugliness, and beauty -- am inspiring thing to behold and even perhaps a masterpiece. --Michael [LISTEN]


EMA - The Future's Void (Matador)

On her 2011 album Past Life Martyred Saints (and on Red State, the sole album from her old band Gowns), Erika Anderson sang about personal apocalypse, but that apocalypse was some deep-rooted past-tense shit: small-town goth blues, Midwestern meth blues, why-did-I-ever-leave-home blues. The Future's Void has that same soul-crushing churn and terrible beauty, but it's about a considerably more contemporary concern: the mental weight of exposing your inner self to strangers, whether on stages or on the internet, and awaiting their judgement. And while Anderson's new fascination with electro-futuristic industrial gizmos leads to some devastating moments, it's her tremulous, snarling, gut-ripping voice that carries this bruised masterwork. --Tom [LISTEN]


Eric Church - The Outsiders (EMI Nashville)

Eric Church has been toying with the possibilities of mainstream country for a while, but this is his tour de force. The Outsiders contains a riff-rock romp worthy of Metallica, a majestic lighters-up power ballad involving Pizza Hut, an unbelievably tender acoustic love song, a wistful bit of midtempo NASCAR nostalgia, a sultry sex jam called "Wrecking Ball" (no relation to Miley), and an eight-minute countrypolitan parable about Satan. That's only half of this generous bounty from country's most adventurous alpha male. --Chris [LISTEN]


Fucked Up - Glass Boys (Matador)

One of my favorite tropes in music is the band who have been so ambitious and brave that the biggest challenge they can make for themselves is to record something "normal" for once. So the follow-up doesn't have have the conceptual grandiosity, postmodern headfucking, or sheer size of David Comes To Life, but do not confuse Fucked Up for a band that’s taking it easy. These 10 songs find one of the hardest-working bands in punk being tougher on themselves than anyone thought necessary, but it pays off with one of the most powerful lyrical self-examinations we've heard in quite a while, while still containing some of the funnest and most musically satisfying songs of their career. There’s no grand vision here, just a long, hard stare into a lavishly decorated mirror. --Miles [LISTEN]


White Lung - Deep Fantasy (Domino)

Vancouver now-trio White Lung came into 2014 with two strong LPs and a pretty impressive resume (not to mention a ferocious live show), but their first release for Domino Records feels as much like a rebirth as an evolution. Although its punk and hardcore roots are plenty visible, Deep Fantasy isn't exactly a punk or hardcore album; how many bands in those hidebound genres can boast songs of such instrumental dexterity, such psychological complexity, and such melodic richness? White Lung frontwoman Mish Way writes and delivers lyrics with the political and sexual urgency of the riot grrrl acts of the early '90s, but her commanding, dynamic voice and her songs' joyously abundant hooks have more in common with the riot grrrl-adjacent acts who actually had hits: Hole, L7, Babes In Toyland. But those bands had a tendency to be turgid or clumsy, while White Lung are lifted by the bashing, squealing guitars of Kenneth William, and instead of plodding, White Lung fly. --Michael [LISTEN]


Against Me! - Transgender Dysphoria Blues (Total Treble)

Laura Jane Grace is taking this whole "first transgender rock star" thing seriously, both in the "transgender" sense and in the "rock star" sense. Transgender Dysphoria Blues is an album about feeling like you were born into the wrong body, about the struggle of trying to become the person you already know you are. And Grace delivers her lyrics with five-alarm urgency, crafting those feelings into universal anthems. Against Me! have never lacked for energy, but they're now playing with a new force and precision, piledriving their hooks deep into your grey matter because they know those hooks mean something. --Tom [LISTEN]


YG - My Krazy Life (Def Jam)

If YG's major-label debut had done all the standard major-label rap debut things -- hits plus filler, a couple of superstar guest appearances -- it probably would've still made this list. L.A. producer DJ Mustard's skeletal, propulsive style is so arresting, and YG's charismatic bray is such a durable vehicle for it -- that it would've been, at worst, a fun and refreshing rap record. Instead, YG and Mustard made a concept album, detailing a day in the life of a petty hoodlum in all its stresses and pleasures and looming dread, and created a whole world out of that. The hits still twinkle, but now they're part of something large and immersive and ultimately moving. --Tom [LISTEN]


How To Dress Well - "What Is This Heart?" (Weird World)

Tom Krell inspired a fertile new subgenre with Love Remains, and he affirmed his ability to evolve with Total Loss. Still, he's never offered an inkling that he'd reach such heights so gracefully. "What Is This Heart?" -- more like "What Is This Album?" Here we have an unimaginably gorgeous, utterly unique advancement in modern music: Art-damaged, R&B-informed singer-songwriter soft rock, marked by walloping bass and fragile falsetto, tackling the tactile and the metaphysical with vulnerability and verve. Krell says God doesn't exist, but this music might disprove that thesis. --Chris


Real Estate - Atlas (Domino)

Real Estate's third and best album captures the fear of the transitional limbo between "quarter-life crisis" and real adulthood more than any album in recent memory. Between what you can't go back to and what you haven't reached yet. That anxiety ("It's so hard to feel in control here") and displacement ("This Is not the place I used to know") seeps through endlessly dazzling arrangements. But Atlas isn't about something as boring as 20-something arrested development, it's about gracefully moving into the uncharted. "Don't know where I wanna be, but I'm glad you're with me, and all I know is it'd be easy to leave" goes the chorus to one song, and you’ll find few more honest expressions of faith, in each other and ourselves, this year -- and none that go so well with cracking a beer in the backyard. --Miles [LISTEN]


Nux Vomica - Nux Vomica (Relapse)

Cloud Nothings' album Here And Nowhere Else absolutely deserves its spot on this list, but we still fucked up when we gave it Album Of The Week on 4/1. That same day, another album came out, one which flew under the radar at the time but which has since grown to consume and immolate our universe. Portland's Nux Vomica were born from the ashes of the amazing Baltimore crustpunk band Wake Up On Fire, whose monolithic attack (two drummers! one cellist!) blew my mind at a warehouse show a decade ago. Nux Vomica have blown that vastness of scale out to epic lengths, and the three long songs on this album swing between punk and metal subgenres with a punishing, ambitious flair that somehow transcends all of them. These guys have made a vast and rewarding piece of heaviness, and you owe it to yourself not to sleep on it, the way we once did. --Tom [LISTEN]


Swans - To Be Kind (Young God)

We already knew Swans could take a couple of hours to leave a smoking crater filled with majestic hate, because that's what they did two years ago on The Seer, and because they have a decades-long history of ecstatic visceral noise-blasts behind them. But on To Be Kind, they pull off something that might be even more difficult, taking another two hours to wriggle and squirm and churn and screech, building monumental grooves and then using those grooves to leave your soul unsettled. To Be Kind is James Cameron in scope but David Lynch in uncomfortable intensity; play it loud enough, and it will swallow your soul. --Tom [LISTEN]


The War On Drugs - Lost In The Dream (Secretly Canadian)

Thirty years after the release of Born In The USA, Adam Granduciel's the War On Drugs created an album that deals in both the sentiments and the sounds of the Boss' biggest. And not just Bruce, but all those Boomer icons who spent the Reagan era trafficking in synth Americana: Dylan, Don Henley, Dire Straits. But Lost In The Dream isn't a retro record; Granduciel's writing frequently equals (and occasionally eclipses) its influences. Meanwhile, he presents these sounds not as updated versions of dated originals, but as though they have been traveling on radio waves through space for the last three decades, and they have arrived here bent and warped and stretched thin. The album's title refers to a broken America, but it could just as easily describe the immersive qualities of the music: It is indeed a hazy, dreamlike record, and it is indeed a vast, spacious record in which you can't help but get lost. It is a record for driving -- open roads, preferably, at top speeds -- just as much as it is a record for drinking -- dark rooms and clouded thoughts and stillness. Classics don't announce themselves upon arrival -- it takes years of cultural erosion and evolution to reveal true timelessness -- but immediately Lost In The Dream feels like a record that has been with us forever, and will be with us forever. --Michael [LISTEN]


Sun Kil Moon - Benji (Caldo Verde)

And you thought Mark Kozelek was baring his soul already these past two decades. Turns out after all those years of transcendent weariness it was possible to get even rawer, to venture even deeper into unimaginable despair. Benji reveals the man behind the curtain and the stories behind the sadness: Yes, the guy who wrote "Carry Me Ohio" really is that hopelessly morbid, and here's why. Kozelek is a troubled man, but only because he's an honest one. This album is astounding in its vulnerability. Kozelek shares everything, dignity be damned, spinning ridiculously detailed anecdotes and confessing feelings most people would be too terrified to reveal. He's not pretending he's too tough to form deep connections with people, nor is he acting like he's impervious to the devastation that comes when life or death rips those people away from him forever. He mourns the human beings he'll never see again and anxiously anticipates the misery that awaits when the rest of them go. You end up feeling like you know these people and identifying with the overwhelming sense of loss that haunts Kozelek's every waking moment. It fucks you up. These thoughtfully scrawled diary entries are set to understated mood music, simple loops that function mostly as a backdrop for the lyrics. In the past, it was possible to listen to certain Sun Kil Moon songs like "Lost Verses" and get swept up in the music without ever connecting with the words. Benji doesn't give you that luxury. The lush fingerpicking and minimal accoutrements function more like a score for the story of Kozelek's life, setting the tone and getting out of the way of his weathered baritone. They serve the narrative, and the narrative goes something like this: "I cannot shake melancholy/ For 46 years now, I cannot break the spell/ I'll carry it throughout my life and probably carry it to hell." That's bleak, but again, Kozelek is just being real. Death is coming for you and yours; suffering is unavoidable. Kozelek ain't one to pray, but he is one to sing and play, so he's doing the only thing a mortal being can do when his heart, body, and mind are breaking down: resonating. --Chris [LISTEN]

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