Here’s my top picks from all my categories Pop/Rock/Folk, Electronic/Dance/R&B, and Geek/Experimental, and Under-the-Radar. Each individual category will have their own list in the coming days, so stay tuned to LJR Music in the days leading up to New Year’s Eve.
This year was a solemn year for music. I’m not sure why my favorite musicians are off their happy pills. I’m not the only one to notice. I’m hoping for more sunshine in 2015, but for now enjoy 2014’s crop of heavy music.
I’ve provided two playlists. The first one at the top of the post consists of two top tracks from each of the top ten essential albums of 2014. The playlist at the bottom of the post consists of all the recommended tracks from each of the albums.
St Vincent’s St. Vincent was well recognized this year. She claimed #1 on the NPR’s Reader’s Poll (leaving no margin of doubt – St. Vincent had twice as many votes as the next closest contender), #3 on ADM’s Poll of Polls (a composite of the top critic lists), #16 at Pitchfork, and #26 at Spin. She also made the unnumbered Best of 2014 lists of the editors at Allmusic.com and NPR Music. Check out my artist highlight for St. Vincent which includes a handy starter playlist.
- Genre – Indie Pop/Rock
- From – Dallas, TX
- Fav Track – Digital Witness, Birth In Reverse, Rattlesnake, Huey Newton, Bring Me Your Loves
- Recommended Tracks – Rattlesnake, Birth In Reverse, Prince Johnny, Huey Newton, Digital Witness, Regret, Bring Me Your Love, Psychopath, Every Tear Disappears, Severed Crossed Fingers
Dallasite (Lake Highlands High School class of 2001) Annie Clark has been releasing recordings under the name St. Vincent since 2007. Even though her music is unconventional, St. Vincent has garnered some mainstream success. St. Vincent’s sound is eclectic and at times eccentric. She explores unusual instrumentation, time signatures and often delves into bizarre, fascinating and sometimes cryptic lyrics throughout her discography. Her musical output has been described as art rock, chamber pop and indie rock. It’s impressive that St. Vincent has brought her brand of unusual pop with its electronic, jazz and orchestral influences to mainstream audiences.
Nikki Nack made Spin’s end-of-year list in the top ten at spot #9, reached #46 on NPR’s Reader’s Poll, and settled in at the #46 spot on the ADM’s Poll of Polls. They also made the cut in the unnumbered Allmusic.com Editor’s Best of 2014. Check out my artist highlight and playlist for tUnE-yArDs.
- Genre – Indie Rock
- From – Connecticut
- Fav Tracks – Find A New Way, Water Fountain, Real Thing, Hey Life, Wait For A Minute
- Recommended Tracks – Find A New Way, Water Fountain, Time of Dark, Real Thing, Hey Life, Sink-O, Wait For A Minute, Left Behind, Rocking Chair
Merrill Garbus (vocals, songwriting, percussion, ukulele) and Nate Brenner (bass, songwriting), a.k.a tUnE-yArDs provide an eccentric blend of world beats, jazz, R&B and folk. Garbus has a belt it out voice that is necessary to avoid being swallowed up by the drum loops swirling around her. She’s serious about percussion too and just returned from Haiti where she furthered her training in drumming. Garbus is known for creating loops on the fly during live performances. Don’t miss this live performance of my favorite track from the new album, “Real Thing” for KEXP in Seattle.
Spoon is a wonderfully reliable band that has filled a happy guitar-rock niche between Jackson Browne and The Black Keys for the last two decades. Their eighth album, They Want My Soul made #16 on ADM’s Poll of Polls, #7 on the NPR’s Reader’s Poll, #12 at Spin, and #13 at Pitchfork. They also made the cut in the unnumbered NPR Music Editor’s Best of 2014. Check out my artist highlight and playlists for Spoon.
- Genre – Indie Rock
- From – Austin, TX
- Fav Tracks – Rent I Pay, Inside Out, Rainy Taxi, Do You, They Want My Soul
- Recommended Tracks – Rent I Pay, Inside Out, Rainy Taxi, Do You, They Want My Soul, I Just Don’t Understand, Let Me Be Mine, New York Kiss
Spoon was formed in Austin by Britt Daniel (vocals and guitar) and Jim Eno (drums). Spoon’s heyday in the 2000’s included prominent placement in the clever 2006 film, Stranger than Fiction, which starred Will Ferrell. This time around they added keyboardist Alex Fischel which lends a more modern and electronic feel. Music journalists marveled at Daniel and Eno’s ability to produce indie rock with such consistent quality while avoiding the doldrums of sameness. It is most telling that I listened to They Want My Soul multiple times when I only had time to listen to many other quality albums only once. They Want My Soul deserves a place next to the group’s best albums to date.
Lost In The Dream ranked #2 on ADM’s Poll of Polls, #1 at Spin, #3 at Pitchfork, and #8 on the NPR’s Reader’s Poll. It also made an appearance on both editor’s choice lists for NPR Music and Allmusic.com. Check out my artist highlight page and playlist.
- Genre – Indie Rock, Hybrid of Heartland Rock and New Wave
- From – Philadelphia, PA
- Fav Tracks – Red Eyes, Under Pressure, An Ocean In Between The Waves, Eyes to the Wind
- Recommended Tracks – Under Pressure, Red Eyes, Suffering, An Ocean In Between The Waves, Disappearing, Eyes to the Wind, Burning, Lost In The Dream, In Reverse
The War On Drugs reimagines the sounds of Bob Dylan, Heartland Rock and New Wave through a gauzy Shoegaze filter. Pitchfork reviewer, Stuart Berman, sums up the vibe as “dad-rock.” An excellent listening experience is provided by dense layers of instrumentation painstakingly arranged to gradually build tension. The War on Drugs was founded by Adam Granduciel and Kurt Vile almost a decade ago in Philadelphia. The group underwent personnel changes early in their timeline with the most notable departure being of founding father, Kurt Vile, who struck out on his own with a successful solo career. Kurt Vile’s latest album, Walking on a Pretty Daze, was ranked as my number five album of 2013 in its category. The War on Drugs’ current style shares similarities with Kurt Vile’s solo work, but Vile actually left after the first album was released. Vile is also described as exacting, and perhaps it was inevitable that two perfectionists would split to follow their own versions of ideal song craft. Granduciel and one other member from the first album stayed on and recruited new musicians. The new group released two follow-up albums that both received positive attention from critics.
- Genre – Alternative Electronic
- From – Canada
- Fav Tracks – Can’t Do Without You, Our Love, Back Home, All I Ever Need, Second Chance
- Recommended Tracks – Can’t Do Without You, Silver, All I Ever Need, Our Love, Dive, Second Chance, Julia Brightly, Mars, Back Home, Your Love Will Set You Free
Dan Snaith is the mastermind mathematics Ph.D. behind Caribou. It’s been four years since his excellent album, Swim. This time around Snaith uses repetitive vocal phrases to create the perception of an all-instrumental piece. Snaith has skill in bringing quirky sounds together into catchy hooks. For instance, “Second Chance” swerves in and out of dissonance while retaining its listenability.
- Genre – Alternative Singer-songwriter
- From – Seattle, WA
- Fav Tracks – Queen, Grid, Fool, Longpig
- Recommended Tracks – Queen, Fool, No Good, My Body, Don’t Let Them In, Grid, Longpig, Too Bright, All Along
Mike Hadreas is already known for his biting lyrics, but this time they get treated to production, bass and synth by Portishead’s Adrian Utley. On the track, Grid, Hadreas takes a screaming lady (or perhaps a bobcat, fisher, fox or other) and remarkably creates a great song.
My next selection is an aching and beautiful album by The Antlers. This album was hard to find on year-end lists even though it received strong ratings when it was released. I did find it on the NPR Reader’s Poll at #33.
- Genre – Indie Rock, Chamber Pop
- From – Brooklyn, NY
- Fav Tracks – Palace, Hotel, Intruders, Parade
- Recommended Tracks – Palace, Hotel, Intruders, Parade, Doppelgänger, Director, Revisited, Surrender, Refuge
The Antlers is the working name of Peter Silberman (guitar vocals), Michael Lerner (drums) and Darby Cicci (trumpet and others). The music on Familiars has an oceanic quality. It’s expansive and encompassing and makes the listener feel very small. It pounds rhythmically and has an ebb and flow like tidal waters. See them perform live in Seattle in the public radio studio KEXP.
- Genre – Singer-songwriter, Indie Folk
- From – New Jersey, New York
- Fav Tracks – Your Love Is Killing Me, Taking Chances, Break Me, Every Time the Sun Comes Up
- Recommended Tracks – Afraid of Nothing, Taking Chances, Your Love Is Killing Me, I Love You But I’m Lost, You Know Me Well, Break Me, I Know, Every Time the Sun Comes Up
Sharon Van Etten’s new album, Are We There, portrays a woman in the dark shadows of a toxic relationship. When she sings on my favorite track, “Break my legs so I won’t walk to you; Cut my tongue so I can’t talk to you; Burn my skin so I can’t feel you,” her pain is palpable. The album’s pace is dirge-like, and I felt the droning to be tedious on the first listen. After a second listen and some attention to the lyrics, the beauty of her pain was suddenly striking to me. Now, I find myself frequently coming back to this album.
Sia is one of my favorite singers, so I was elated when she came back with a strong album. She made her mark at #15 at Spin and #51 on the NPR’s Reader’s Poll. Be sure to check out my artist highlight and playlist too.
- Genre – Indie Electronic Pop
- From – Australia
- Fav Tracks – Chandelier, Burn the Pages, Eye of the Needle, Fair Game, Elastic Heart
- Recommended Tracks – Chandelier, Burn the Pages, Eye of the Needle, Hostage, Straight for the Knife, Fair Game, Elastic Heart, Fire Meet Gasoline, Cellophane
One of my favorite vocalists, Sia, returns after a 4 year hiatus with her strongest album to date. 1000 Forms of Fear unveils the powerhouse voice within the often troubled Sia Furler. 1000 Forms of Fear marks a return to the public eye for an introvert artist that struggles with life in the spotlight. Her new album chronicles her painful journey beyond alcohol and drug abuse, depression, and suicide ideation. It’s delivered with passion, and knowing the back story makes it even more moving.
Singles ranked #11 on the ADM’s Poll of Polls, #7 at Spin, #22 Pitchfork, #12 on the NPR’s Reader’s Poll, and made the cut in the unnumbered Allmusic.com Editor’s Best of 2014. You can find more Future Islands at my artist highlight and playlist.
- Genre – Indie Rock, New Wave
- From – North Carolina, Baltimore
- Fav Track – Seasons (Waiting On You), Fall From Grace
- Recommended Tracks – Seasons (Waiting On You), Sun in the Morning, Back in the Tall Grass, Light House, Fall From Grace
- Single – Seasons (Waiting On You)
The music is New Wave inspired with a crooner bent and an occasional growl that would be more at home in a much more intense metal genre. The overall mood of the music is forcefully employed restraint that peeks out in small bursts of drama.