Top 10 Albums of 2014

With the end of 2014 upon us, I calibrated my algorithms in order to deliver the Top 10 Albums of 2014 According to a Deeply Biased Perspective On the Realm of Music. I offer no “objectivity” in my selections, and I cried for all the albums I just couldn’t find room for in this aggressively hierarchized list.

Lana del Rey Lana Del Rey performs on stage for day three of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival April 13, 2014 in Indio, California. (Photo Courtesy of Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times/MCT)

10. “Ultraviolence” by Lana Del Rey

This is, potentially, an unpopular choice for this list. Say what you will about Lana’s “inauthenticity,” her rejection of feminism or her surgically altered lips; “Ultraviolence” is a damn good album. With Dan Auberach of “The Black Keys,” Lana found her ideal partner — someone whose fuzzy guitars and resounding melodies evoke Lana’s American excess, Technicolor sunshine and coiffed hair that never existed. The album is littered with her iconography (see “Queens of Saigon,” references to cigarettes, “cold cash divine,” Beat poetry, etc.), but doesn’t sound cartoonish in Auberach’s lush soundscape. “Ultraviolence” buzzes with a cool melancholy that didn’t come through on her over-produced debut LP. Read another Zach’s thoughts on “Ultraviolence” here.

 

(Photo Courtesy of Double Double Whammy) (Photo Courtesy of Double Double Whammy)

9. “Zentropy” by Frankie Cosmos

I sent Frankie Cosmos (the alias of Greta Kline) around a dozen emails this semester, asking if she wanted to be a Bandcamp gem on my "It Came From Bandcamp" column. She never responded. It’s fine. I’m not bitter. “Zentropy” is a rad album. On “Zentropy,” Kline’s honest, wistful lyrics about her velvet ass and incorrectly identifying her father as a fireman (he’s actually the actor Kevin Kline) drift across a simple but disciplined 10 tracks anchored by a three-piece drum set and a guitar. Anyone who derides Frankie Cosmos for being “simple” misses the point. Kline’s straightforward lyrics are in the same vein as the poet Frank O’Hara (whom Kline admits to adoring), where a sparsity allows for emotions to speak for themselves.

(Photo Courtesy of Infinite Best Recordings) (Photo Courtesy of Infinite Best Recordings)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

8. “Mr Twin Sister” by Mr Twin Sister

With Mr Twin Sister’s eponymous not-quite-debut album, the band threw its twee sound out and sped into the dead of night, where smooth synths and seductive beats reign. This is my kind of album, one that should be played between twilight and dawn. Affixing the Mr to the feminine Twin Sister reconfigures the band as androgynous, but this is not an overtly political album. Nah, Mr Twin Sister is just out to question the solidity of identity (see “Is there even a real me / Or am I just a series of nights?” from “Blush”) while delivering the sexiest pop and disco this year.

 

(Photo Courtesy of Loma Vista/Republic) (Photo Courtesy of Loma Vista/Republic)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

7. “St. Vincent” by St. Vincent

Eponymous albums, when not a debut, seem to carry extra importance. St. Vincent’s fifth album is important as a marvelous manifestation of Annie’s effort to sharpen her unique sound to a fine point. I miss the days when Annie would descend into distorted sax interludes and bemoan a burning Paris, but I’m happy to swap that for songs that leave Jesus feeling displaced and berate our digital obsessions. The sax is still here, but it’s more purposeful — as if Annie gives us a beat to march to. Annie, you’re perfect.

 

(Photo Courtesy of Domino Records) (Photo Courtesy of Domino Records)

 

6. “Atlas” by Real Estate

Before “Atlas,” Real Estate wasn’t a band I listened to outside the carefree confines of summer. On previous albums, the group’s blissful guitars, light rhythms and singer Martin Courtney’s pillow-soft vocals evoked suburban wandering and lazing about the house in the late afternoon without an anxious thought passing through your noggin. Real Estate’s sound hasn’t changed with “Atlas,” but lyric uncertainty abounds. “Atlas” turns the group’s focus from a dreamy nostalgia to that strange limbo between a 20-something crisis and “actual adulthood.” A touch of anxiety suits this group, making “Atlas” Real Estate’s best album.

 

(Photo Courtesy of What's Your Rupture?) (Photo Courtesy of What's Your Rupture?)

5. “Sunbathing Animal” by Parquet Courts

Parquet Courts is a band that rewards two distinct types of listeners. On one hand, if you’re the scholarly examiner who enjoys charting band influences/lineages/etc. and parsing out literary and pop culture references from the lyrics, “Sunbathing Animals” will keep you entertained. On the other hand, if you simply enjoy off-centered rock, you too can enjoy Parquet Court’s “Sunbathing Animal.” This album, though, is meant for those prepared to bond with the album and sink into its lyric genius.

 

(Image courtesy of Orchid Tapes) (Image courtesy of Orchid Tapes)

4. “Ontario Gothic” by Foxes in Fiction

Warren Hildebrand, the cool cat behind Foxes in Fiction and the record label Orchid Tapes, knows that bedroom pop is not dead. His second LP as Foxes in Fiction proves that. Over seven tracks, Hildebrand balances lyrical melancholy and a lush atmosphere of synths. The album's music could keep bedroom pop devotees satisfied with repeated listens for months, but Hildebrand also includes video loops with a download of the album from Bandcamp.

A noted admirer of Brian Eno and Atlas Sound, Hildebrand said on his website that he seeks to “create a listening experience that provided people with a deeply comforting and psychological healing effect...” “Ontario Gothic” achieves this goal, and it’s quite exciting to see music like this come from the independent Orchid Tapes. Read my full review of the bedroom pop masterpiece “Ontario Gothic” here.

 

(Photo Courtesy of Captured Tracks) (Photo Courtesy of Captured Tracks)

3. “Salad Days” by Mac DeMarco

Mac DeMarco — a fan of public nudity, covering Limp Bizkit in concert and toting floral dresses — never took himself seriously. Yet, with his second LP “Salad Days,” DeMarco gets serious. Here, we find him crooning about “always feeling tired, smiling when required” and “watching my life, passing right in front of my eyes / Hell of a story, oh is it boring?” Mac, you’re never boring. Sonically, the album soars with his trademark whimsy.

“Salad Days” shares this list with another band (see: No. 6) where anxiety suits the sunshine-y sound. It may be contradictory for carefree strumming to accompany rolling over and dying, but internal contradictions make for great art. In fact, many of the greatest albums from this year are made so wonderful by harmonizing two disparate notions, and DeMarco does a fine job of confronting the existential tangle of getting older without losing his smirk. Read my full review of “Salad Days” here.

 

(Image courtesy of Jagjaguwar) (Image courtesy of Jagjaguwar)

 

2. “…And Star Power,” Foxygen

Foxygen’s third LP is perfect in a careering, off-road car ride though space sort of way. While “We Are The 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic” was a peaceable album that “made sense,” “…And Star Power” makes very little “sense.” It’s beautiful, though. The 24-song double LP veers from sonic bliss (see “How Can You Really”) into distorted chaos (see “Cold Winter/Freedom”) and back, like, six times. That’s what happens when the chemically reactive partnership of Sam France (the unwieldy, chaotic one) and Jonathan Rado (the more refined one) plays out without many restrictions.

As a result, you get an album that alienates a few folks and makes a few dads think “…And Star Power” was recorded in 1968. Ya, Foxygen borrows liberally from the past 50-odd years of music for this album, but the band put its own unique spin on it. At the end of the day, “…And Star Power” rewards the dedicated listener. Your first spin on this merry-go-round will result in a case of vertigo. The more time you spend with this unwieldy masterpiece, however, you’ll find the divine light in the chaos. Read a full review of “…And Star Power” here.

 

(Photo Courtesy of Matador Records) (Photo Courtesy of Matador Records)

1. “Too Bright” by Perfume Genius

Until “Too Bright,” I just couldn’t get into Perfume Genius. Sure, I appreciated his lyrical honesty, but the sparse piano arrangements and sadness left something missing. There was too much melancholy perfume and not enough genius. “Too Bright” delivers on both perfume and genius. This album is the best about-face evolution this year — bar-none. “Too Bright” finds Mike Hadreas, the queer mastermind behind Perfume Genius, shattering all illusions by spitting in the eyes of his haters. The album opens with Hadreas rejecting the same old lie that he can see for miles, and, oh, is this album ready to confront the dark and dirty reality of life.

Hadreas dropped the wispy pianos for a weirder, denser sound of powerful synths, fuzzed out guitars and screaming. I dig this evolution because it’s not an arbitrary adjustment to sell more records, but a reflection of Hadreas’s rage about lingering gay panic, keeping queers who don’t fit the marriage-hungry mold marginalized. “Too Bright” rings with a literal battle cry (see “Grid”) for all of the otherized folks (queer or otherwise) to march without fear. In the album’s lead-single “Queen,” Hadreas sings “no family is safe/ when I sashay.” Follow suit and sashay, dear listener, sashay.

 

Reach the reporter at Zachariah.Webb@asu.edu or berate him for liking Lana Del Rey on Twitter at @zachariahkaylar.

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