10. Eagulls – Eagulls
Eagulls fit into the loud-is-more punk tradition of bands like Iceage and Savages, but unlike those groups, their first priority is the hook. On their eponymous debut, the English five-piece uses this strategy to great effect, creating what feels less like a sprawling mess of a record than one may expect given their absolutely ferocious live shows (essential viewing if you’re into this type of music). They still go hard, though–check out the visceral “Hollow Visions” or the chaotic single “Tough Luck,” proof that Eagulls have enough oomph to match their songwriting chops.
9. St. Vincent – St. Vincent
St. Vincent doesn’t offer a ton of growth (yeah yeah, I get it, she worked with David Byrne) but really, how much was St. Vincent going to be able to grow? Annie Clark was already one of the best pop songwriters in music coming into this self-titled record, and good news: she still is, as St. Vincent is the easily the strongest set of songs Clark has ever written. “Prince Johnny” delivers Clark’s trademark groove in spades, while “Rattlesnake” jitters with herky-jerky tension. It will be interesting to see where Clark goes after this, but in the meantime, may we enjoy St. Vincent as yet another triumph by an artist who has written no small number of them.
8. Isaiah Rashad – Cilvia Demo
Oxymoron, Schoolboy Q’s hyped major-label debut, should have been one of 2014’s biggest treasures. While that record was solid, it was his Tog Dawg Entertainment labelmate Isaiah Rashad who made a bigger statement. Cilvia shares some similarities with Kendrick Lamar’s mixtape Section.80: it’s a sprawling, beat-heavy, honest, sometimes awkward but always fascinating record from one of rap’s most exciting wunderkinds. Confident, too: “I came, I saw, I conquered–I shot you down,” he boasts on the closer (“Shot U Down”). When it comes to Rashad’s musical piers, you really can’t help but agree with him.
7. Wild Beasts – Present Tense
English post-punks Wild Beasts broke through with the blognoscenti with 2011’s Smother, a strange and darkly seductive indie record that received high praise from Pitchfork and Pseudo-Pitchfork alike (looking at you, Spin). And while ‘strange’ and ‘seductive’ are popular points of reference in 2014, Present Tense is two things that transcend miniature movements: deeply human and strikingly gorgeous. See “Mecca” and “Pregnant Pause,” two sparse standouts that make nifty use of shimmering, cyclical guitars and frontman Hayden Thorpe’s emotive falsetto.
6. Perfect Pussy – Say Yes To Love
Let’s tell it like it is: this record shreds, it defies genre, and you won’t be exactly the same after hearing it. But it’s only 23 minutes, you say? Well, the record–23 minutes of guitars noisier than noise itself, rip-you-limb-from-limb feedback, and lyrics (via lead singer/yeller Meredith Graves) so painfully honest that you should be glad you can only hear about five percent of them–is certainly more than enough for any one sitting. Most terrifying, though, is how propulsive and catchy most of this is. Anthemic, even. Which is, as Christgau would say, a neat trick.
5. Damien Jurado – Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Sun
Damien Jurado has been making folk records for years, but you wouldn’t know it by listening to Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Sun. The music here is fresh and lively, delivered with the passion of a young person and the grace of an elder statesmen. It helps, of course, that Jurado writes positively beautiful music. “Metallic Cloud,” the album’s standout, is one of the most gorgeous songs I’ve heard this year. Surrounded by the haze of the track’s hauntingly psychedelic atmosphere, Jurado delivers the album’s clarion message: “Colors don’t change when your life gets strange.”
4. Sun Kil Moon – Benji
One of the most personal records you’re ever likely to hear, Benji is an ode to the people songwriter Mark Kozelek has loved and lost. Like his work in Red House Painters, the songs here carry a dense emotional intensity and pair it with stripped down, subtle guitar work. At their worst, Sun Kil Moon tunes tend to drone on a bit, but Benji doesn’t suffer from this fault. In fact, after hearing the gorgeous and honest “I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love,” you realize that understated and graceful arrangements are really the only way to soundtrack Kozelek’s words. After all, those words–beautiful, heartbreaking, disturbing–are the main attraction here. You’ll want to hear them, and you’ll soon realize that Kozelek needed to say them. And that’s when he’s really got you.
3. East India Youth – Total Strife Forever
William Doyle of East India Youth is sort of the James Blake even James Blake hasn’t heard of, a UK-based IDM obsessive who deals in insular electronic numbers with an ever-so-2014 dash of humanity. With Total Strife Forever, he continues to mine that territory, but with a penchant for technicolor sonic detours and immediately gratifying pop numbers that make his work stand out from Blake’s. On “Looking For Someone,” he sounds one Apple commercial away from breaking out, and I mean that in the best possible sense. While Blake continues to venture down the musical rabbit hole (where RZA lives, apparently), we need strange but eminently accessible records like this one.
2. The War On Drugs – Lost in the Dream
Springsteen, Hornsby, Dylan, Petty–War on Drugs have heard ‘em, apotheosized ‘em, and torn their guts out trying to figure out how to make an original album full of their influence. They absolutely nailed it with Lost in the Dream, a record that combines the melancholy of emotional strife with the romantic, Kerouacian glory of the American Road. On “Red Eyes” and “An Ocean Between The Waves,” you can practically hear the trees whizzing by and feel the breeze pouring in from open windows as frontman Adam Granduciel drives away from his woes. Musically, the record never stands still–drums crash, guitars phase like light through a prism, saxophones shimmer through synthesized haze, and Granduciel’s voice does enough emoting for ten albums. All of this combines to form the sound of pure catharsis, and yes, a dreamy record nearly impossible to not get lost in.
1. Real Estate – Atlas
Atlas is all about the anxiety of being an adult trapped in flux; the album most will remember as Real Estate’s back-from-the-beach, capital s-Serious record. And all of this is valid: on “Past Lives,” frontman Martin Courtney “can’t come back to this neighborhood” without feeling his age, and on “Crime” he just doesn’t want to die “lonely and uptight.” But with the new-found thematic profundity comes the New Jersey five-piece’s strongest batch of songs, too. What’s left is the feeling that these guys, once known for their carefree vapidity, might be the favorites to pick up the elusive title of Great American Indie Band.
Gone are the inner tubes and skating rinks, and with them the reverb, leaving a great warmth and clarity past Real Estate records (even 2011’s excellent Days) lacked. It almost feels like the upgrade in production impacted the writing of these songs, because the band moves into an almost Americana-tinged sound on tracks like “Primitive” and the Alex Bleeker-led “How I Might Live.” Perhaps the setting played a part (Atlas was recorded at Wilco’s studio in Chicago). Whatever the case, the new studio wizardry captures perfectly a vivid sense of longing and the subsequent backward-gazing to figure out at exactly what point everything changed.
In terms of the tunes, Real Estate fans needn’t worry–Atlas sounds like a Real Estate record and like a record only Real Estate could make. Matt Mondanile’s phased-out guitar lines and Coutney’s laconic voice still carry the day here, and yet again, their borderline-psychic reverberations work together to glorious effect. “Talking Backwards” is an excellent example of this; standing as perhaps the catchiest song of the year, the single is a masterclass in confident songwriting and the sound of a band at its peak. The atmosphere on Atlas, too, is pure Real Estate, as the darker lyrical themes are paired with exquisitely melancholy arrangements. This record sounds like growing up in the suburbs, coming back as an adult, and finding that all of your friends grew up and are gone forever. Heavy.
Overall, Real Estate haven’t made a record to throw on once in a blue moon, but something a lot harder to come by: a record to live with and grow with. Atlas may be too subtle to soundtrack any blockbuster films, but it might just prove to be the record that soundtracks your year.
Categories: Arts and Culture