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Top 10 albums of 2014

This is strictly my opinion and should be treated as such. These 10 albums are the ones that stuck out to me the most this year. I’m only one person, so I’m obviously not able listen to absolutely everything, but I tried.

Spoilers: Taylor Swift didn’t make the list.

10. Real Estate – “Atlas”

real estate

Real Estate is a New Jersey band that mainly comprises a trio of instrumentalists who stick to the indie/psychedelic rock genre. Following a string of excellent releases from their 2009 debut album “Real Estate” and their sophomore effort, 2011’s “Days,” Real Estate came back full force in 2014 to release their most recent LP, “Atlas.” This newest record is more of the same kind of music that Real Estate has produced in the past, and in this case, it’s a good thing.

The album is filled with songs to play as you drive down a country road, windows down, in autumn just as the leaves have started changing. Real Estate provide a picturesque look into songwriting, mostly revolving around past relationships, almost romanticizing breakups to the point that you want to become the sophisticated person described in their lyrics.

The only issue with this record that prevents it from being higher on the list is that it is so ultimately inoffensive that it almost becomes offensive from its neutrality. Real Estate serves as good palette cleanser music after a particularly difficult Monday, or during finals week.

9. Jack White – “Lazaretto”

Jack_White_-_Lazaretto

While being an active member of three separate bands, owning and running a record label and other miscellaneous badass-ery, Jack White found the time to crank out a new solo album. Following the level of excellence he established with his 2011 attempt “Blunderbuss,” White’s newest LP takes a much heavier and fuzzier look at his songwriting.

Where “Blunderbuss” aired on the softer side of the rock spectrum  with the exception of lead single “Sixteen Saltines” “Lazaretto” throws caution to the wind and shows that White’s eccentric White Stripes side is still intact in lead single “Lazaretto” and “That Black Bat Licorice.” This isn’t to say the soft-rock side of White is non-existent on this LP, though. Tracks like “Temporary Ground” and “I found the Culprit” give the listener a brief reprieve from the action.

Throughout White’s career spanning almost two decades, he has produced an immense amount of music, almost all of which has been met with critical acclaim. “Lazaretto” is White’s attempt at reaffirming his title of King of Alt. Rock.

8. Julian Casablancas + The Voidz – “Tyranny”

tyranny

Generally, when a supergroup like The Strokes splits up for its members to pursue solo careers, the results are sub-par. With the formation of original Strokes frontman Julian Casablancas’ new band, Casablancas seemed like he was set up for just as much failure as his fellow bandmates’ solo projects. These projects weren’t necessarily bad, but when you come from a band as prolific as The Strokes, it’s difficult to disassociate yourself from it.

But “Tyranny” is a different story. Casablancas came back with a new cast of bandmates and took a much darker songwriting style. Casablancas writes songs that continue to escalate to the point where the separate sections of the songs are all wholly different from one another. “Human Sadness” is the greatest example of this. The 11-minute track features echoing vocals from Casablancas and light synth in the background, then highlights a solo from the eccentric guitarist Beardo, then everything drops out for a harp to lead into the next piece of the track, where booming drums and a wailing Casablancas take hold of the song. In case you missed it, here is my concert review from that time I saw JC + The Voidz at Marathon Music Works.

“Tyranny” will likely turn out to be more of a Julian Casablancas cult record. It has yet to see mainstream success since its October release. Casablancas is entering a new era of his career, with the early-2000s Strokes being far in his rearview.

7. tUnE-yArDs – “Nikki Nack”

tune yards

tUnE-yArDs is the project spearheaded by New Englander Merrill Garbus, and I’m not even really sure what genre to call it without sounding pretentious. Garage pop maybe? Wikipedia calls tUnE-yArDs indie pop, so we’re going to go with that.

“Nikki Nack” is tUnE-yArDs’ third full-length LP, following 2009’s “Bird-Brains” and 2011’s “w h o k i l l.” “Nikki Nack” possesses the highest production value of the three projects, with tUnE-yArDs having moved from Marriage Records to the more seasoned 4AD Records — who house chart-topping artists like Bon Iver and The National — in between the release of “Bird-Brains” and “w h o k i l l.”

“Nikki Nack” is the most spirited and happy record in this list, with songs like “Water Fountain” and “Real Thing” showing off a skittering beat whose excited claps leave you no choice but to stand up and dance along. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of tUnE-yArDs, though, is Garbus’s voice. There’s not a comparison that really does it justice. Check out the music video for “Water Fountain” before I do her any more of a disservice by trying to say that her vocals are “reminiscent of a younger Björk or Zola Jesus” in an attempt to make it sound like I know what I’m talking about.

6. Perfume Genius – “Too Bright”

perfume genius

There’s no doubt this album takes the award for “Most Somber” on my list. Perfume Genius is the moniker of gay Seattle native Mike Hadreas. Hadreas garnered a large amount of attention with the release of the video for “Hood” — from Hadreas’s 2012 effort, “Put Your Back N 2 It” — because: A) It’s a great track, and B) the video featured a scantily-clad Hadreas and gay adult film star Árpád Miklós — who went on to commit suicide a year later — putting makeup on one another and taking pictures for a photo shoot. Following the release of his acclaimed album in September, Perfume Genius made his network television debut with David Letterman in October.

Hadreas kicks off the album with the track “I Decline,” giving a solo over a lone piano with a harmony sweeping in to accompany him in the latter half of the track. Hadreas then blasts through in the track “Queen” to pick up the pace of the album. “Queen” is filled with a low distorted synth layer, quickly followed by high-pitched piano that leads into the explosive chorus featuring crashing drums and an über falsetto that I don’t think is possible for another human to recreate. Skipping ahead, one of the more interesting tracks from “Too Bright” was “Longpig.” “Longpig” featured an 80s-esque synth scale which bounces up and down through the song for the whole three-minute track.

Sometimes, when an artist leads with, “I’m gay,” that’s really their only claim to fame. But Perfume Genius is a different story entirely. Hadreas possesses a level of songwriting ability and musical skill that beats out many other musicians.

5. How to Dress Well – “What is this Heart?” 

how to dress well

How to Dress Well is the project of singer and songwriter, Tom Krell. Vocally resembling that of a slightly emaciated Abel Tesfaye of The Weeknd, Krell’s songwriting is very ambient and ethereal, and in the June released “What is this Heart?” Krell writes on themes of love and loss and religion among other topics.

Krell’s vocals are very wavering and almost unconfident. But surrounded by the lavish production provided on “What is this Heart?” Krell’s vocals are accented extremely well, and become more and more enticing as the project goes on. The track, “Repeat Pleasure,” is the clearest definition of this, starting off with sparse acoustic guitar and slowly comes to a crescendo towards the end of the track in which Krell belts out, “Even broken, my heart will go on,” while surrounded by keys, backup vocals, the same guitar as the beginning of the song and claps that all come together to provide an audible expression of this somber concept. This method of mixing Krell’s vulnerable vocals together with this grand production style is also shown through the track, “Very Best Friend,” where a much less melancholy Krell writes with more fondness about his significant other than he had on the previous few tracks. “Very Best Friend” is one of the more upbeat tracks from the LP, with a steady beat and driving vocals from Krell himself.

How to Dress Well’s “What is this Heart?” is a well cultivated mix of love songs and songs about maintaining an optimistic viewpoint on life, and “What is this Heart?” is sure to be included on 2014 top-ten lists and the eventual best of the decade lists, as well.

4. Run the Jewels – “Run the Jewels 2”

Run-The-Jewels-RTJ21

This one’s kind of a given. In case you missed it, here’s my intro information to Killer Mike, El-P and “Run the Jewels 2.” Run the Jewels was one of the most hyped rap projects of this year, and for good reason. The entire project is one long brag about how Mike and El are the two greatest rappers alive, and all the others are #Fuccbois. You can find an annotated list of people who aren’t #Fuccbois here in Pitchfork’s review of “Run the Jewels 2” written by Ian Cohen.

El-P’s production is more experimental than anything you’ll hear on a day-to-day basis. Here’s a video from Mass Appeal records where El-P makes a beat out of three records he picked at random from the record store. Now back to the album, not a whole lot has changed from RTJ1 to RTJ2, but this duo definitely seemed to bring out a more refined sound. They also enlisted an all-star cast of guest features for this project. The first featured artist to show up on the project was Rage Against the Machine frontman Zack de la Rocha. El-P sampled de la Rocha’s vocals for the track “Close Your Eyes,” which is what the beat is mainly composed of. De la Rocha also has a guest verse at the end of this track, which is the first time he’s been featured on an album since Deltron 3030’s 2013 album “Event II.” Quite possibly the best feature on this album though, was Travis Barker on “All Due Respect.” Barker is most famously known as the drummer for rock band Blink-182. The song would have been good without Barker’s percussion, but including these drums launches the track even higher and makes it much more memorable.

Run the Jewels have received almost universal acclaim from critics and fans alike, and they’ve been touring for the past five months. They certainly have no shortage of energy, and “Run the Jewels 2” reflects that. It’s also free. Download it here.

3. Mac Demarco – “Salad Days”

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Mac DeMarco is a weird dude that sticks to the indie rock and indie pop genres. “Salad Days” is his sophomore attempt, following 2012’s “2.” With the exception of Real Estate, the Canadian DeMarco has composed possibly the most accessible album on this list.

DeMarco kicks off “Salad Days” with the title track which serves as a kind of mission statement for the album. You’re going to be hearing a good bit more of these psychedelic guitar riffs and lazy vocals throughout the entire album. Then the album takes a bit of a somber turn with the track, “Brother.” This song follows the pattern set in the title track, but this time DeMarco attempts to write that following your dreams is a much more fulfilling task than a 9-to-5 job in which you perform menial tasks all day. Then, the album comes back up from these darker notes for the track, “Passing Out Pieces.” This track features a much fuller sound than some of the lighter songs, with an all-encompassing keyboard layer making up the body of the song. DeMarco wrote this song to follow the softer tracks, “Let Her Go,” and “Let My Baby Stay,” to lighten the feel of the record, and “Passing Out Pieces” accomplishes this easily.

DeMarco brings something much different than anything that’s been made in the indie rock genre in past years to the table. DeMarco makes music that at first listen sounds very alien but quickly becomes familiar the more you delve into this record.

2. Swans – “To Be Kind”

Swans_To_Be_Kind

This is the record I usually show people, only to be met with quizzical stares. Swans is one of the more prolific noise rock and drone bands from New York City. Formed in 1982, the only original founding members remaining still active in the band are Michael Gira and Norman Westberg. Following a 13-year breakup between 1997 and 2010, Swans reformed to release 2010’s “My Father Will Guide Me up a Rope to the Sky” and 2012’s critically-acclaimed “The Seer,” and they came together once again to compose their May 2014 release “To Be Kind.”

If you want to take on the arduous task of looking at any Swans record, you’ll need to clear your calendar. Noise rock and drone rock in Swans’ case will take a single guitar riff, drum pattern and vocal line and string it out over sometimes upwards of 30 minutes, in the case of “The Seer.” Rolling Stone even went so far as to call it “a season in hell,” in reference to the 32-minute title track. The shortest track from “To Be Kind” was the lead single “A Little God in my Hands,” which clocked in at a solid 7 minutes. It features a bouncing and tense main riff until lead vocalist Gira finally steps up to bring his menacing vocals into the track. Following closely along with “A Little God in my Hands” is the most upbeat track from the record, “Oxygen.” This track has the same composition as “A Little God in my Hands” in that it possesses these same marathon guitar riffs, and sinister vocals from Gira. The difference between the two tracks comes with the highlight of percussionist Thor Harris in “Oxygen.” Harris is a pretty cool guy and is known for his sense of humor, evidenced in his list on How to Live like a King for very little. Check out Swans’ performance of “Oxygen” at the 2013 Pitchfork Media music festival in Chicago. 

1. Isaiah Rashad – “Cilvia Demo

 cilvia demo

Named after Isaiah Rashad’s car, “Cilvia Demo” is a mixed bag of heartfelt melodies and intense party anthems. Rashad set out to construct an album “you can vibe to,” and this album is the purest definition of that.

Rashad is one of the newest signees to rap collective/record label Top Dawg Entertainment, alongside SoCal natives Kendrick Lamar, ScHoolboy Q, Ab-Soul, Jay Rock and recently signed neo-soul artist SZA. Originally hailing from Chattanooga, Tenn., Rashad made waves in the hip-hop community with the release of his mixtape “Welcome to the Game” and caught the attention of the chart-topping rappers at Top Dawg Entertainment.

Rashad tackles his own demons in this project as well as the racial stereotypes that follow him throughout his life. The song “Modest” details Rashad’s experiences with racial profiling in the lines, “‘What you got in that Corolla?’ / ‘Oh, officer, just Boosie Boo and DG Yola.'” Rashad doesn’t have anything illegal in his car, just the sounds of Lil’ Boosie and DG Yola. “Modest” is a more muted track with an ethereal synth lazily meandering in the background. Juxtaposed with Rashad’s excited, bouncing vocals, this track is one of the best from this project and even one of Rashad’s favorites. This style of laid-back production is featured on the majority of the LP, evidenced in the tracks “Heavenly Father,” “Menthol” and “Tranquility.” But the crown jewel of the project is “Banana.” “Banana” has the same laid-back production style as the rest of the project, with a hard hitting drumline and mellow hook. Rashad glides through his verses before finally getting to his second verse, where he absolutely lets loose and addresses issues with his father, fear of his rap career not panning out and stress of juggling his regular life with his fame.

Love or Hate my list? Did I leave out your favorite post-modernist-acid-jazz album from this year? Let me know in the comments!

About Sean McCully

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