By: Shaun Spivak
Once again, as the year comes to a close, I like to reflect on which albums have held the most weight and resonated with me personally within the past 12 months. Listening to specific songs, albums and artists calls back memories, both vivid and vague, and I almost always find that reflecting on these pivotal moments through my preferred medium of escape gives me the most comprehensive view of the year that continue to hold weight for years to come.
I decided that this year I wanted to group my favorite albums into “Good, Better and Best” rather than creating a quantitative list. The reason is that that grouping albums into sections would allow me to qualify albums based on how good I actually thought they were, while avoiding placing one higher than the rest. Admittedly, it is also because I had a very difficult time choosing my overall favorite album of the year, and my choice seems to change weekly.
That being said, I want to place a particular emphasis on the subjective nature of a list like this. I’m sure there will be many that vehemently disagree with my choices, and I encourage suggestions and comments! Regardless, I hope that this list within my admittedly limit frame of exposure to music released this year can help provide some positive listening experiences for readers.
A simple and beautiful record with some excellent songwriting by Van Etten. In an era where albums from singer-songwriters are so incredibly saturated with the fingerprints of a producer, her music feels untarnished from the source and raw. The opening track is particularly striking.
Standout Tracks: Afraid of Nothing, I Know
Zimmer does it again with this organ-heavy soundtrack to accompany one of the most impressive films of the year. The soundtrack made the movie for me, and listening to the ticking clocks in “Mountains” and droning bass notes in “Stay” take me back to some of the many incredibly impactful moments in the film. Hans Zimmer continues to prove himself as one of the most effective composers in the industry.
Standout Tracks: Mountains, Stay
Although it lacks the stunning orchestration and staying power that made their debut, Shallow Bed, my favorite album of 2012, the group retains their excellent songwriting skills and creates a comprehensive and powerful sophomore release. Alarms in the Heart is engaging and a pleasure to listen to that includes an element of charm that no other group have seemed to crack, largely due to Pete Liddle’s powerful vocal delivery.
Standout Tracks: Gethsemane, Vessel
Like their debut, A Voilent Wave, Alt-J manages to deliver some incredibly strange messages (See lyrics to Every Other Freckle) through a very accessible package, resulting in an album that is diverse and enjoyable. For anyone looking for a solid mixture of ethereal instrumentation without straying too far away from a classic and catchy formula, I would highly recommend This Is All Yours.
Standout Tracks: Warm Foothills, Bloodflood pt. II
To accompany yet another excellent Fincher film, Reznor and Ross don’t rely on volume for intensity, but instead meticulous dissonance. Like any good score, each track is relentlessly committed to carefully crafting an atmosphere. Where Reznor and Ross really shine is through tracks like Sugar Storm and Like Home. Taken out of context, these songs appear as quite uplifting ambient measures. Being privy to the sinister nature of the film only makes the small nuances throughout the soundtrack come to life in an incredibly eerie fashion.
Standout Tracks: Sugar Storm, Like Home
While Transgender Dysphoria Blues is officially the 6th LP Against Me! have released, the album feels like a completely new beginning. Since the release of their previous album, White Crosses, the band has left their major record label and lead singer Laura Jane Grace has publicly come out as transgender, and both items are largely in focus on this record. Grace addresses issues of transgender discrimination and identity struggles with careful but fiery passion. The record is full of excellent, at times tragic, examples of Grace’s own struggles while at the same time addressing wider issues such as sexism and violence. To see an album speak to these issues in such a personal and effective way (on display against a backdrop of some of the bands most raw, exciting tracks to date, no less) is an enormous feat.
Standout Tracks: Transgender Dysphoria Blues, Drinking with the Jocks
Consistency is key when it comes to Annie Clark (aka St. Vincent). While her 2009 release Actor remains my personal favorite, this 2014 self-titled stands as her boldest statement. The strength of Annie’s guitar work, lyrical competency and vocal power are at an all-time high here. If one is familiar with her work but looking for a taste of what I am describing, look no further than one of the standout tracks Bring Me Your Loves which presents a relentless, dissonant introduction that erupts into a chaotic storm of guitars and synthesizers. It’s hard to imagine St. Vincent releasing material that isn’t of some of the highest quality that can be found in contemporary indie-rock music.
Standout Tracks: Digital Witness, Bring Me Your Loves
I’ll be honest; it took me a while to come around to this one. Lykke Li’s sophomore release, Wounded Rhymes, was a record that really came alive with intricate percussion and a diversity of tracks. When I first heard I Never Learn, the somewhat “uniform” nature of each track put me off. After a good run with the album and some dedicated time to let it sink in, it came to light that this contributed to a much more cohesive listening experience. While I Never Learn may not be as sonically varied as her previous record, it is more thematically consistent and delivers her best songwriting and production work to date. Hats off to Björn Yttling and Greg Kurstin who coproduced the record with Li. This is one of the best examples of excellent production in 2014.
Standout Tracks: I Never Learn, Heart of Steel
This one just almost made the best list. Post Tropical, McMorrow’s second album, shows a triumphant improvement from his debut in every way possible. From the meticulous instrumentation to the incredible vocal work (some of the best seen in any album all year), Post Tropical is a fantastic, atmospheric piece of work that stuck with me through most of the year after its January release. The only thing that shines brighter than the album is McMorrow’s excellent live production which I had the pleasure of witnessing at the Barbican Performing Arts Centre in London. If he is in the area, the show is a must-see.
Standout Tracks: Cavalier, Gold
I was skeptical when I heard that Beck was going to be releasing a “companion piece” to Sea Change, his 2002 album which stands as one of my favourites of all time. While Morning Phase doesn’t have the “wow” factor that Sea Change did when it was released, there is actually much more to find in this record when you give it the time it needs. Ultimately, taken at face value, Morning Phase stands firmly on its own as some of Beck’s greatest songwriting to date, as well as some of the most mature production and composition that he has been involved with. The string arrangements seep through the tracks, tying each together and providing a cohesive experience that is uniform thematically and retains a distinct sonic shell. From the opening track, Beck sets the stage for a very comprehensive journey that never lets up throughout its 13 track excursion.
Standout Tracks: Wave, Turn Away
I’ll admit that I am not a huge fan of electronic music. This is mostly due to the fact that my exposure has been limited and my attention span, knowledge, and interest in the genre cannot really justify sitting through many of the lengthy releases (labeling the genre as widely as “electronic music” illustrates this ignorance). I have always had an affinity to Richard D James (aka Aphex Twin) for his attention to detail and for essentially pioneering an intricate, heavily-layered and instrumentally focused approach to contemporary electronic music. This appreciation did not involve regular listening however. Syro changed that, and remains the only electronic album to do so. To my astonishment, Syro does not only include a plethora of analog and digital instrumentation that is carefully composed into a dense, complex mixture of electronic pieces as you would expect from James, but it is also exceptionally accessible. James manages to utilize his expertise while crafting a melodic selection of tracks that retain that Aphex Twin “charm” while never becoming too repetitive or perplexing. Syro stands as one of the most sonically interesting albums that I experienced in 2014 and I could not help but returning to it throughout the end of the year.
Standout Tracks: minipops 67 [120.2], aisatsana 
After almost exactly 8 years since his previous album, Damien Rice has appeared from the shadows to deliver My Favourite Faded Fantasy. Like the rest of his material, a certain amount of disbelief needs to be suspended pertaining to how genuine Rice really is in what he is delivering. Due to the timing of Rice’s departure from music and his separation with Irish singer Lisa Hannigan, My Favourite Faded Fantasy is quite possibly his most palpable material to date. The album is also a very endearing narrative that culminates with the track Trusty and True, a song about separating oneself from the negative feelings and associates one might have with love and loss (exemplifies throughout the first half of the album) and accepting a new transition. The powerful mixture of storytelling and musical composition comes to a head when the first female voice (common throughout Rice’s earlier material) is heard during the bridge, symbolizing the own personal development that Rice may have experienced when creating Fantasy. Take it how you’d like, but my interpretation is that this album is a beautifully crafted and authentic expression of Rice’s time during his absence from music, and his return is a powerful and emotion statement.
Standout Tracks: My Favorite Faded Fantasy, Trusty and True
Lost in the Dream is the most aptly titled album of 2014. The songs here are utterly entrancing, and the more time that you spend with them the more you get to know the subtle intricacies that are buried within. The War on Drugs was incredibly successful at making a statement with this album that made them stand above the rest in 2014, and their extensive touring and critical recognition is testament to this success. Lost in the Dream is also the strongest guitar album of 2014, providing layers of effect-saturated licks that strike a perfect balance between scrupulous arrangements and care-free jamming and exploration. It is the perfect example of a record that feels methodized in approach but undemanding in delivery.
Standout Tracks: An Ocean in Between the Waves, In Reverse
A Strange Encounter is an absolute must-listen for anyone who hasn’t heard it, which I can only assume is a majority of readers. It is the most beautiful album of 2014 and in its short duration delivers an incredibly focused collection of tracks that range from orchestral marvels to downright catchy progressive rock. While it may appear at first that the content here is sparse, the lasting value of this album is unparalleled. Thirteen Senses is the perfect example of a seemingly obscure group that have provided a hidden gem that I only hope can be exposed to and recognized by a greater audience. The uncharted territory of A Strange Encounter is honestly some of the best music I have experienced in the past few years.
Standout Tracks: Stars Make Progress, Gathered Here a Stranger
Other Great Albums of 2013:
Song of the Year:
In just two verses, Run The Jewels, a hip-hop duo consisting of veterans Killer Mike and El-P, address the failing and destructive American “War on Drugs” as well as the fear of police brutality and racial and social injustices that have so pertinently and viciously marred the country in the past year. What is especially potent here is the emotional focus on the racial divide between whites and blacks, delivered directly and proficiently by the duo. Killer Mike and El-P center their energy on empathy rather than anger, illustrating the pain of some and apathy of others. The contrast between the verses is remarkable, and the delivery and flow are unmatched in terms of hip-hop in 2014. It seems strange that my song of the year is included in an album which did not make the cut in the list, however it’s unfortunate that the rest of the album did not match the high-standards set by this song, along with a few others on Run The Jewels 2, making it the hip-hop masterwork that it has such strong potential to be.