My 10 favorite albums of 2014

Happy holidays, I come bearing good tidings. After much soul searching, I’ve compiled a list of my 10 favorite albums of this year. Of course, this is an entirely subjective process, totally based on my taste. As always, this is not a cheer-ocracy.  In order of excellence, here are the 10 best albums 2014 had to offer.

10. Tacocat- NVM

It’s sort of brazen for a Seattle-area punk band to christen an album with an abbreviation of the phrase never mind, but with songs about teenage drug trips, menstruation and skewering suburban anarchy, Tacocat are kind of a brazen band. Like a slightly more well-known album called Nevermind by a slightly more popular Seattle-based band, NVM is packed with slick, catchy rock music. NVM is such an incredibly fun record, it can feel slight. However, the tunes are great, the songs have a unique perspective and the lyrics are wildly entertaining.

9. Vince Staples- Hell Can Wait

Hell Can Wait is an exceptional Hip-Hop album. It’s an uncompromising look at a life of knowingly doing wrong to survive. The lyrics are angry, socially charged, introspective and occasionally sad. There is even a pinch of broader social commentary on “Hands Up”. Production is crisp and interesting. Unfortunately, Vince Staples released this album the same year a pair of releases(see No.8 and No.2 on this list) used similar premises to greater effect. If you have a soft spot for West Coast gangsta rap, this is still a must listen.

8. Schoolboy Q- Oxymoron

This is another California gangsta rap album that displays complete awareness of its deplorable moral vacuum. However, Schoolboy Q has a magnetic charisma and sense of humor that make the bleakness of his subject matter both more palatable and more interesting. This is a rapper who has single handedly revived the bucket hatOxymoron is Q’s major label debut, and “Collard Greens” is the best possible result a studio mandate for a Schoolboy Q hit single could possibly have. Deep self-examinations of what it means to be an opiate-addict, drug-pushing gangsta and a dad mingle with oddball dance tracks, and despite some bloat, it totally works.

7 and 6.(tie) White Lung- Deep Fantasy and Perfect Pussy- Say Yes to Love

If you have a taste for noise rock made by angry women and can stomach some absolutely acrid lyrics, 2014 was a great year. It’s hard for me to talk about Deep Fantasy or Say Yest to Love without referencing each other. Perfect Pussy’s album features more fuzz and screeching, while White Lung’s album is more in-focus and aggressive, but these are two sides of the same exhilarating rock coin.

6. Protomartyr- Under Color of Official Light

Protomartyr’s sophomore effort, Under Color of Official Light is an amazing, offbeat piece of art. The album is the exact sonic intersection of KYUSS and Joy Division. Heavy, murky guitar riffs with post-punk drum beats and angular, brooding vocals. Somehow sludgy and energetic, it’s one of the year’s most original releases and definitely worth a few spins.

5. Cloud Nothings- Here and Nowhere Else

Cloud Nothings found the perfect balance between Attack on Memory‘s raw aggression and the bubblegum hooks of Dylan Baldi’s earlier work. These are hummable melodies created by a full-fledged rock band absolutely pummeling their instruments. In modern rock music, there are few things capable of eliciting as much involuntary body movement as the spastic head nods caused by the moment on any given track on Here and Nowhere Else when Baldi and Co. decide to kick things into the next gear.

4. St. Vincent- St. Vincent

St. Vincent’s eponymous release is a perfect encapsulation of everything Annie Clark does extraordinarily well. There’s angular robo-rock, spacey dance tunes, oddball lyrics and, of course, exquisite guitar work. If there is room in your heart for interesting art-rock, you’ll love this album.

3. Ex Hex – Rips

This is a power pop album ripped straight from ’70s AM radio in the best possible way. Everything slightly derivative, but it’s impossible to listen to without a dumb grin plastered across my face. At any given moment, Rips is never more than 20 seconds from the next near-perfect guitar lick. Everything is driving, catchy and instantly familiar in a wonderful, comfrotable way. Because it already sounds classic, Rips is probably this year’s most re-listenable album, and the fantastic, catchy melodies make those repeat listens downright compulsive.

2. Run the Jewels- Run the Jewels 2

RTJ2 is maybe the most intense release of the year. It tackles large social concerns–race relations, police brutality, poverty, etc– while also hurling some of the most colorful, hilarious insults of the year toward anyone, usually deemed a “fuck boy” who dares to oppose Killer Mike and El-P. The chemistry between Mike and Jaime is jaw-dropping as the two MC’s fluidly drop tag-team rhymes. Once again, El-P’s production is spot on, and the beats sound like no one else in rap music. This album is positively visceral. Run the Jewels made the perfect soundtrack for an often tumultuous year and committed fully to filling the airwaves with their own angry truth.

1. Strand of Oaks- Heal

From the opening moments of “Goshen ’97” I strongly suspected Heal would be my favorite album of the year, and I was 100 percent correct. It’s a snapshot of a man’s head space as he moves past addiction, isolation and marital issues. It explores a variety of a sonic terrain ranging from ’90s alt-rock radio to shimmering synthesizer rock to piano balladry. The common through lines are giant choruses and an unapologetic love for musics. References to artists, media formats and respected musicians dot the entirety of Heal, and the album’s first five songs form an incredibly satisfying emotional arc. It combines the “beer commerfcial” guitar of a War on Drugs album with the weightier meditations of Sun Kil Moon in a year, when it was decided those two qualities were dichotomous. Heal is a deeply personal statement made in the most broadly appealing way, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Honorable mentions(in no particular order): War on Drugs- Lost in the Dream; Sun Kil Moon- Benji; Sturgill Simpson- Metamodern Sounds in Country Music; D’Angelo-Black Messiah; First Aid Kit-Stay Gold; Perfume Genius-Too Bright; and Jenny Lewis-The Voyager

Kind of young, kind of now: Charli

First and foremost, let’s appreciate that headline reference.

OK, moving on.

Charli XCX, Charlotte Aitchison, released her second full-length album, Sucker, recently, and it’s pretty good with flashes of greatness.

Of course, a lot of three-star pop albums get released during the year, but this record stands out, because it’s a breathe of fresh air into the rote nihilism of the popular music landscape.

Pop is an incredibly reactive genre.

When everything on the radio sounds the same, it’s because of intentional assimilation.

Large surges in genre popularity such as the British Invasion, Disco, Hair Metal, Grunge or the recent EDM boom are a direct result.

Sometimes, the next popular thing is a direct reaction to the last popular thing. Nirvana was antithetical to Poison, so grunge begat hair metal.

Still, the influence of past works is pretty easy to trace. Buddy Holly can be linked to Jay Z in three steps.

The Beatles loved Buddy Holly and The Crickets, Kurt Cobain loved the Beatles and Jay Z re-purposed the chorus from “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in a hit single.

One of the biggest songs of the year uses the non-catchy part of an old Wham! song for its chorus.

Charli XCX doesn’t operate outside a sphere of influence, but Sucker shows she’s synthesizing more interesting sources.

Title track, “Sucker” establishes the expectations. The song’s conceit wasn’t new when Alice Cooper did it. Youth culture is in favor of rule breaking and against school. What’s interesting is the song’s structure and influences. It follows a loud-quiet-loud format, with pregnant, quiet moments, which owe a debt to “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” The backing drum machine also smacks of “Song 2” by Blur. Of course, it’s no surprise that a self-proclaimed ’90s bitch would be aware of alt-rock anthems, but it is a surprise to hear them employed in something legitimately expected to gain traction on pop radio.

It further subverts expectations by building to a drop that never comes. At the moment most other pop songs would turn up the club-rattling bass, “Sucker” takes a slithery turn to a sound approaching a sped-up version of J.Geils Band’s “Centerfold”. Of course, it’s less surprising in its context, because Sucker is a rock album in spirit and sometimes practice.

References to guitars, rocking and sunglasses abound. Many of the tracks actually feature guitar. Homage is even paid to The Ramones, in the song, “London Queen” when Aitchison enunciates baseball bat in an instantly familiar way.

Elsewhere, “Body of My Own” serves as a spiritual successor to Cyndi Lauper’s “She Bop”, “Famous”, which is driven by a wonderfully guitar riff straight out of ’83 that channels Tom Tom Club, Fine Young Cannibals and Prince, “Hanging Around” sounds equal parts latter-day Weezer and Joan Jett, and “Need Ur Luv” even sends up Phil Specter-era girl groups.

Some of the disparate influences can be chalked up to collaboration. Rivers Cuomo receives a songwriting credit for “Hanging Around” and Ariel Pink produced “London Queen”.

However, it’s clear the intention was to create a sound outside of  the Top 40’s current parameters.

While thoroughly enjoyable, Sucker is not perfect.

Some songs on the album don’t quite work, but there’s more hits than misses, but aside from “Die Tonight”, most of the songs operate above or at least outside the current pop fray.

Also, when the unifying theory behind an album is the blending of a myriad of oddball styles, cohesion is lost.

Coupled with an energy which almost never flags, Sucker can be a bit exhausting in one sitting.

Still, consumed in chunks, it’s wonderful ear candy.

Sucker‘s influences are always fairly apparent, so it wouldn’t be accurate to call it groundbreaking or even unique.

It is, however, a well-made album from an aspiring pop princess, who is willing to think outside of the box.

Modern pop music’s big hooks and nihilistic exuberance is present, but they’re cut from a slightly different cloth.