The 50 Best Albums Of 2014
Music is a messy thing. There’s too much of it, too many genres, too many ideas, for anyone to make sense out of all of it — or even to hear all of it. The idea of imposing a narrative on 365 days of music, of making sense of a whole year, is a fool’s errand. Still, some years, stories and patterns and commonalities emerge. Trends cut across genre lines and become movements. New voices rise up and reshape the landscape in their image. Some years, you can start to feel like you’re making sense out of all of it. This isn’t one of those years.
Looking at Stereogum’s list of the year’s best albums, you won’t find a whole lot of common threads or shared ideas. There’s not one genre or aesthetic or feeling that dominates the whole thing. Instead, we’ve got a list that seesaws wildly between explosive joy and wizened self-aware depression and staring-out-windows indolence and feverish all-consuming rage. It’s a list where the world’s biggest pop star sits sandwiched between a pair of insurgent Atlanta rap bugout kings and a sharper-than-ice queer singer-songwriter expressionist, where a mob of previously-unknown crust-metal demons snuck into the top 10 ahead of many of the year’s most acclaimed albums. Stereogum is a site that’s known for covering indie rock, and you’ll find plenty of down-the-middle guitar-driven indie on our list. But you’ll also find elephantine stoner metal and slick Nashville country and disorienting future-R&B and brutishly minimal West Coast rap and splintered punk rock and shimmering retro-maniacal dance music. What I’m saying is: This list doesn’t make sense. And that’s a good thing. It shouldn’t.
Looking for common threads, only one thing jumped out at me: There are a lot of old motherfuckers on this list. Across genres and economic strata, crusty veterans had a good year. You’ll only find a small handful of debut albums on the entire top-50 list, but you will find plenty of artists who made their greatest impact a decade or more ago. For the most part, these veterans, whether we’re talking about scorched-earth storyteller Sun Kil Moon or studio-pop pro Jenny Lewis or Swiss metal boundary-smasher Thomas Gabriel Fischer (of Triptykon), these veterans have found new ways to get at the heart of what everyone liked about them in the first place. In an increasingly decentralized music business, maybe there are fewer people now standing between these people and the things they want to say. These musicians are evolving, but they’re also straying true to the selves we’ve known for a long time.
The Stereogum staff who put this list together is different from the one that put together last year’s list, which was different from the one the year before. This time around, we’ve got Gabriela Tully Claymore and James Rettig, both champions of new strains of DIY pop, and Ryan Leas, the young classic rocker who’s written so many great features for us. The list is as much about Stereogum’s staff as it is about the year in music itself. These are our favorite albums, not the ones that are objectively the best. (There is no objective best in something as personal as music.) And together, we’ve assembled a list that’s just as messy as the year it represents. We hope you find things that you haven’t heard, things that move you like they moved us. –Tom Breihan
50 Parquet Courts – Sunbathing Animal (What’s Your Rupture?)
Parquet Courts are the kind of chronically chill band that has been exhaustingly compared to Pavement, but on the apathy barometer, Sunbathing Animal should be regarded in the shadow of bands like Television. Songs like “Dear Ramona” and “Always Back In Town” display the same kind of structural rigidity found on Marquee Moon. Parquet Courts are smart, sure, but their new record isn’t as smarmy as Light Up Gold, and its lyrics are more pointed. There are a lot of questions to be found on Sunbathing Animal, many of which are rhetorical and go unanswered. “How is agency built in a life unfulfilled?” Andrew Savage sings on “What Color Is Blood,” before circling around to the choral line, “Excuse me as I slip on out.” These aren’t lessons on living, but rather tales of evasion — displacing the question in favor of never finding an answer. –Gabriela [LISTEN]
49 St. Vincent – St. Vincent (Loma Vista)
Sometimes self-titling a record several LPs into a discography is meant to signal a new phase of old things, a mid-career back-to-basics. Other times, it’s something like St. Vincent’s newest offering: an announcement, an arrival. Though St. Vincent wasn’t as shocking a step forward as Strange Mercy had been from Actor, it still feels like a destination toward which each of Annie Clark’s albums had been incrementally building. We couldn’t see it with the sinisterly sweet Actor or even with the sweetly sinister Strange Mercy, but this version of St. Vincent was always what was meant to be — this version, of colorless hair and sci-fi aesthetics and guitar and synth layers ranging from melted to glassy but always, always remaining sterile and ethereally chilly. Clark had steadily been on her way to becoming one of the luminaries of this era of indie, and this album — with mutated grooves like “Digital Witness” or reflections as moving as “I Prefer Your Love” — feels like the official coronation. –Ryan [LISTEN]
48 TOPS – Picture You Staring (Arbutus)
TOPS make the kind of music that should soundtrack the wind-down of the best day of your life. It’s impossible to listen to a record like Picture You Staring and not feel the corners of your mouth begin to curl upward. There’s something atmospheric and intimate about the record that recalls other Arbutus releases, but TOPS have a definitive pop streak that is toned down by Jane Penny’s vocals. Penny’s voice creeps into empty spaces, like slow-released vapor, intertwining with bold synth lines to create something simultaneously haunting and easy to listen to. –Gabriela [LISTEN]
47 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]
46 Spoon – They Want My Soul (Loma Vista)
When you crank out great music as consistently as Spoon does, it can become story-less. You might find people trying to impose a narrative where there’s only an inhumanly unerring band with a seemingly infinite selection of hooks. The story attached to They Want My Soul was that it was the long-awaited “return to form” after the first moderately disappointing album of their reign, 2010’s Transference. See, this is crazy, because Transference is a gem in the catalog — a dusty and shambolic take on the typically well-oiled Spoon mechanism. Bogus narrative aside, it does make for a fine symbiosis with They Want My Soul, an album that’s perhaps Spoon’s shiniest, grooviest, most nocturnal release yet, and feels all the more so for its comparison point with Transference. Whether in the impeccable pop of “Do You” or the shimmery synths of “Inside Out” and “New York Kiss,” this is Spoon at the height of their powers but injecting a few new colors into the mix — mostly a range of luminescent blues that work as well on a humid night walk through Manhattan as they do on a humid night drive through Florida. –Ryan [LISTEN]
45 You Blew It! – Keep Doing What You’re Doing (Topshelf)