I’m looking now at my Best Of 2013 list. Finding it hard not to reflect on my music tastes even just a year ago: “What the hell was I thinking?” There’s a lot in those 10 spots that I might think twice rewarding so generously a year later, and a lot lacking, too — pop, hip-hop, and R&B, primarily. I know my weak spots; I didn’t become a fully-fledged poptimist until this year, and hip-hop always takes me a while to digest, to obsess over. As a genre, rap took me until college to really get into. But in my 2013 list, where is Yeezus? Where, even, is Acid Rap?
Both albums — which no doubt would take spots on a 2013 recount ballot — did not really become parts of my music-listening repertoire until the spring of 2014. And those aren’t even the most egregious of my errors; where did I place the monumental Beyoncé on that very same list? Nowhere, I’m ashamed to say. In that respect, at least, I’m in plenty good company. Beyoncé took us by surprise last December with the most daring pop album I have ever heard, and I’m still listening to it, months later. The album didn’t need my personal support to prove its longevity. But it’s nice to be included.
This individual Best Of 2014 list began its life back in January. I spent my year listening to the albums the critics suggested, listening to the songs that my friends and those I admired on Twitter wouldn’t stop talking about, streaming everything that dropped online that I could possibly give my attention. I spent my year writing down every album that kept attention, whether for a brief flash or for weeks at a time, to make sure I wouldn’t miss anything, to make sure I was doing my proper homework.
You’ll notice once again that there is no hip-hop on this list. Not for lack of talent or effort on my part, though. I know my weak spots; I’ve listened to more hip-hop this year than I have ever before, both old and new, but even the obvious stand-outs (Run the Jewels 2, most prominently) haven’t yet cemented themselves into my brain. Perhaps I was too busy listening to Yeezus. Maybe by next year’s recount.
I worked on this Best Of list until the very moment of publishing. Even from the ballot I submitted a few weeks ago to The Village Voice’s Pazz + Jop critic’s poll, albums have moved around. This list went through endless revisions and second-guessing, and that, I believe, is a very good thing. There’s just too much damn good music for something like this to be easy deciding. I hope you will find something to support your opinions, something to challenge them, and, most importantly, something new to obsess over for many months to come.
Why Merrill Garbus’s extremely groovy, exquisitely weird, excruciatingly urgent third album didn’t get heralded by more Year End lists, I will never know. Even on 2011’s wonderfully frantic Whokill, Garbus has never hit such highs — musically, or lyrically. Her talent for composition, and full sense of drama, is most apparent in lead single “Water Fountain,” a Bo Diddley-beaten hopscotch that piles on layers of percussion, bass, electronic pings, and Garbus’s own vocals until she fully yells over the chaos. If every song were as frantic as that, she might seem a one-trick pony. But Garbus, rarely satisfied to keep two words in the same octave, delivers ballads (“Look Around”) as convincingly as rapid-fire, heavily rhythmic semi-raps (“Hey Life”). Whereas “Rocking Chair” gives a pretty powerful impression of an old-time folk round, “Wait For a Minute” is practically R&B, she croons so sweetly, before the syncopated chorus throws you for a spin.
The only wasted moment is the weird-as-anything spoken word interlude, but on most of the albums included on this list, there will be a song or two too much. With every other moment, however, Nikki Nack barks with urgency, as on “Real Thing”: “Don’t ever pay me / I look good in debt (Oh no) / Red, white, blue course through my veins / Binge ‘n purge the USA.” Garbus speaks a mouthful — about expectations of women, about war and the government, about, good god, even colonialism — and her tone is alternatingly bitter, joking, and full-on serious. “I mean it, don’t beat up on my body,” she intones in closing track “Manchild.” And she does mean it, every word she sings.
2. The War On Drugs
Lost in the Dream
The euphoric haze of Lost in the Dream is lit by pulsing saxophone, grinding guitars, keyboards, harmonica, and Adam Granduciel’s comforting voice. It is the most grounded space-rock, and the most spacey Americana, all at once. Small wonder it has appeared on — and for many, topped — most Best Of lists already. From the galloping “Red Eyes” to the standout guitar solos of “An Ocean Between the Waves” to the blissful sway of “In Reverse”(before it gives way to one of the catchiest choruses of the album), Granduciel and band paint more than a few landscapes with their dreamy sonic palette. Here, the individual songs are long, but The War on Drugs take their whole hour to capture a singular feeling. It’s warm and it’s fuzzy and it hasn’t quite found itself on the map yet but that’s alright.
3. TV on the Radio
I’ll borrow from myself for this recap: Eschewing the busy background bombast of the band’s previous efforts, the more streamlined Seeds builds around the loose concept of a relationship’s lifecycle, rising and falling with excitement, hope, resentment, disappointment, and eventually resolve. TV on the Radio are partial to handclaps, layers of static-y synths, fuzzy guitars, and crystal-clear “oohs” and “ahhs,” like on slow-tempo confessionals “Quartz” and “Careful You,” where entropic drones dominate the airwaves but always keep the articulate vocals and their ghostlike harmonies at the very top of the mix. Single “Happy Idiot” leads the way with frenetic hi-hat and sharp guitar, which also cuts through the album’s downtrodden, though never dull, midsection for the post-punk punches of “Winter” and “Lazerray,” giving way to the gentle, determined conclusion (it really does feel like a conclusion) of title track “Seeds.” “Rain comes down / like it always does / This time, I’ve got seeds on ground” is a mantra, repeated, remembered.
4. Against Me! Transgender Dysphoria Blues
It’s funny how the opening song on Against Me!’s powerful Transgender Dysphoria Blues begins with a marching band drum roll, because front-woman Laura Jane Grace marches forward with all intent in the world. There’s no softening blows here: “You want them to see you / Like they see every other girl / They just see a faggot.” Direct, necessary. After herself coming out as transgender in 2012, Grace channels her own experiences, rage, and whole-hearted determination into the most blistering punk of the year. Here — as everywhere — the personal is the political. But Grace sings, shouts, and yells like a rallying cry, and the guitars and drums behind her pound away, driving forward without yield. These riffs are headbang-worthy, but much of this music is driven by true human loss, emotional as well as physical pain, and the sad reality that an individual pursuit of identity is not always in lock-step with dominant society. Well, fuck that.
5. Sharon Van Etten
Are We There
This album hurts, a lot. Not in that it’s painful to listen to — on the contrary, the deliberate piano and whirring strings are positively beautiful — but because Sharon Van Etten makes us feel so goddamn much. There’s less guitar, fewer singer-songwritery vibes than on her 2012 breakout Tramp, and a whole lot more drawn-out choruses, evoking Dylan if he had any sort of singing ability at all. On stand-outs like “Tarifa,” Van Etten’s acoustic guitar provides an intimate structure, but it gains some real guts come the chorus, backed by horns and an almost reverential organ: “Can’t remember / I can’t recall, no / I can’t remember anything at all.” That church organ makes its most prominent appearance in “Your Love is Killing Me,” which receives Van Etten’s best belting. And after six minutes of excruciating buildup, it’s a brutal thing to do to one’s heart.
I tend to reward concepts, themes, or ideas — no matter how simple or grandiose, whether lyrical, musical, or some combination of both — followed through with purpose in albums. Morning Phase is like a few others on this list, in that way. More expansive, more bright, even, than the other “Beck does something beautiful and acoustic” album in his catalog, Morning Phase is also a lot more happy. Which is funny, because nobody ever pegs Beck for a happy-go-lucky sort of guy. But Morning Phase comes from a very different period in his life, and it feels like something of a reawakening. That’s really the best way to describe it. With more than a little of a country vibe — compliments of the pedal steel guitar, piano, and lots of acoustic guitar — listening to this album is like waking up in the morning, stretching out your arms, and greeting the day anew.
7. Jenny Lewis
First accolade: The best Jenny Lewis album since the last one. Second accolade: The best Fleetwood Mac album since HAIM debuted last year. Even beyond her immense pop-rock experience (all that time fronting Rilo Kiley will do that to a person), Lewis is a talented musician, period. It’s been a rough few years for her, and the world has waited a full nine years for her third solo work, but the wait wasn’t for nothing. The “bah-bahs” of opener “Head Underwater” show that none of her hook-writing abilities have diminished over time, and the Beck-produced “Just One of the Guys” proves that her sense of humor hasn’t, either. It’s in the sparse closer “The Voyager,” however, where Lewis fully evokes the pain she’s been trying to escape from this whole time.
8. The New Pornographers
Oh, what a thing to have the old band back together again. AC Newman, Neko Case, Dan Bejar, and crew burst in, guns ablaze, on their sixth full-length, announcing Brill Bruisers as a return-to-form for the Canadian champions of power-pop. Starting right from the opening blast of fuzz guitar, the production here is dense, like a slice of chocolate cake, and just as sweet. “War on the East Coast,” one of Bejar’s best contributions to the band, pulses with energy, just as the pounding drums and unabashedly bright power chords on “Dancehall Domine” send shockwaves ahead of the band’s vocals. Acoustic guitars here are few and far between, and empty space even more rare. It’s the first thing to really feel like a cohesive group effort from the New Pornographers in a while, and one of their best yet as a result.
9. Taylor Swift
2014, when I came to understand that to enjoy pop music was not dependent on apologizing for it. Impossible not to be enthusiastic when someone like Taylor Swift reclaims the label: Unimportant? Inconsequential? Hardly. 1989 arrives after Swift’s long march through pop-country to her true musical realm, but its strength is just as much indebted to her personal transformation. Beyoncé may be unrivaled for some time in terms of feminist musical statements, but Swift’s own embrace of the badge of “feminist” (thanks, Lena Dunham!) is reason for celebration. She who once slut-shamed girls in short skirts now rocks them herself, calls out her ex-boyfriends for calling her crazy, and just generally is a more confident, more aware songwriter. Though the back-half lags a little, 1989 has some of the smartest cuts around, from the Jack Antonoff (of Bleachers)-assisted “Out of the Woods,” the much-admired, smirking “Blank Space,” and my personal favorite, the Random Access Memories-meets-Drive-soundtrack glam of “Style.” There’s a reason this album holds my top three most played songs on iTunes, ever. To borrow a quip from Ben Folds, everywhere she goes — damn, there she is.
This December’s album surprise dropped after 14 years of absence from its artist; even Beyoncé couldn’t claim that. Not that I had much of an idea who D’Angelo was before the instantaneous hullabaloo over Black Messiah, a dark, troubled, funky — and fully cohesive — masterwork. I probably would not have bothered listening to the stream on Spotify (thanks, 21st century!) had it not been for the insistent proclamations of Black Twitter, in coordination with the outcries of all the music websites I follow religiously. But these are the threads I had been setting up for myself over the past few years, to increase my own awareness of the greater world, to challenge my biases, to provide me with more things to really love. And here, they all worked according to plan. Black Messiah’s release date was sped up a couple of weeks in response to protests over police brutality still ongoing around the country, and its inner turmoil — drawn in parallel by many to Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On, which is disturbing because not a whole lot has changed since 1971 — is palpable and shocking.
Bleachers — Strange Desire
Fun. guitarist Jack Antonoff puts his best foot forward on the debut from his indie-pop side project, but with frenetic soloing and even more frenetic production work on songs like “I Wanna Get Better” (my choice for song of the year, let alone summer) this should be more of a full-time gig.
Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings — Give the People What They Want
Everyone’s favorite soul queen, and the top-rate brass-section army of Daptone Records, demands total respect in what I call her best album yet. “Retreat!” lest ye be destroyed by a voice that knows no competitors.
Angel Olsen — Burn Your Fire For No Witness
From a campfire intimacy to an in-your-face electrified rumble, Angel Olsen’s second album is loosely folk, but tightly wound. It jangles, it booms, it hi-fives because it’s lonely, too.
Strand of Oaks — Heal
Timothy Showalter delivers every line with a conviction not even that guy from Future Islands can compare with, and his grinding, whirring guitars are matched only with glam ‘80s synths and drum kits. Musical artifice broken down by emotional reality — surprises abound.
St. Vincent — St. Vincent
Annie Clark didn’t so much inherit the art-rock crown from David Byrne inasmuch as she won it with the funkiest crop of songs since her last. St. Vincent embraces technology while wondering what it is doing to our lives. With it, she shreds, croons, rules.
Tinariwen — Emmaar
With their home country of Mali too tumultuous for the time being to return, the Tourag desert-blues travelers of Tinariwen recorded their entrancing Emmaar in California’s Mojave. You can practically see the heat waves rising off the grooves.
Sturgill Simpson — Metamodern Sounds in Country Music
Such introspective, psychedelic country might not feel so earnest if not sung in the deep baritone of the man named Sturgill Simpson. “Turtles All The Way Down” opens into a consideration of faith, aliens, and love. As for the music, well, Simpson knows Nashville just as well as the heavens beyond.