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- Lake Street Dive-Bad Self Portraits
Style: It all starts with lead singer Rachael Price. She’s a bonafide star. But the band provides plenty of help by way of jazzy, soulful, foot stomping rhythms and melodies.
Sidenote: An INCREDIBLE live act. If they come to your town, I highly recommend seeing the show.
Recommended: Stop Your Crying, What About Me
- Black Pistol Fire-Hush or Howl
Style: Dirty, grimy, snarling garage/blues-rock, played fast and played loud.
Recommended: Hipster Shakes, Blue Eye Commotion
- John Fullbright-Songs
Style: To put it simply, this is the best pure singer/songwriter album of the year.
Recommended: High Road, Going Home
- Dum Dum Girls-Too True
Style: Revisiting my White Lung comment, the Dum Dum Girls make their Jesus & Mary Chain + Siouxie & The Banshees influences blatantly obvious, but who cares. The potential I always felt existed for this band is now being fulfilled, and I’m thrilled to be along for the ride.
Recommended: Rimbaud’s Eyes, Lost Boys & Girls Club
- Angaleena Presley-American Middle Class
Style: Country, but plenty of honky tonk, bluegrass, and rock n roll. And by the way, the amount of confidence she sings with…oh yeah, she knows she’s damn good!
Sidenote: Who would have thought that the “other” member of Pistol Annies would create the best solo album?
Recommended: American Middle Class, Ain’t No Man
- Black Milk-If There’s a Hell Below
Style: One of the best and most underrated rap producers of the last 10 years tones down the volume and puts his lyrics front and center this time around with impressive results.
Recommended: All Mighty, Quarter Water (With Pete Rock)
- Caribou-Our Love
Style: Electronic music keeps itself at a distance. It’s not designed to be intimate. Caribou does the unthinkable and creates electronic music that manages to reach and connect with listeners emotionally.
Recommended: Back Home, Julia Brightly
- Old Crow Medicine Show-Remedy
Style: No style is more obvious and in your face than an album created by Old Crow Medicine Show. This is a straight up bluegrass party!
Recommended: Shit Creek, 8 Dogs 8 Banjos
- Joe Bonamassa-Different Shades of Blue
Style: One of the best guitarists of this generation, he has proven himself in every genre, from blues to hard rock. On this album, it seems like he’s gotten all his other interests out of his system and can feel comfortable focusing on 100% good ol’ honky tonk, soul-influenced blues.
Sidenote: This is actually Bonamassa’s first album with 100% original material.
Recommended: Living on the Moon, Love Ain’t a Love Song
- Counting Crows-Somewhere Under Wonderland
Style: With many leaving the Crows for dead, Adam Duritz all of a sudden is reinvigorated, making his most bouncy, upbeat album of his massive discography, with incredible storytelling to match. I still get the feeling, though, that many listeners are pining for those epically depressing songs guaranteed with Counting Crows albums.
Sidenote: People are gonna find something to complain about no matter what. This album is amazing!
Recommended: Earthquake Driver, Elvis Went to Hollywood
- Angel Olsen-Burn Your Fire for No Witness
Style: Lo-Fi distortion and feedback can’t hide the quality of the songs.
Sidenote: I really like the album as a whole, but I’ve seen many placing it top 5 on the year. For an album to be ranked that high, the individual songs have to stand out more than they seem to do for me.
Recommended: Stars, Windows
- Ages & Ages-Divisionary
Style: Joyful melodies combined with astonishing harmonies make this album endlessly repeatable and memorable.
Sidenote: Milo Green’s debut contained the best harmonies I’d ever heard in my life, but judging from the first 4 singles they’ve released from their upcoming follow up, it’s all gone wrong. Other greet harmonic groups like Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeroes and The Mowgli’s give me a creepy feeling, like someone’s about to demand I drink the “punch.” Therefore, Ages & Ages are now my go-to group for harmonies.
Recommended: Over It, No Pressure
- First Aid Kit-Stay Gold
Style: Folk, bluegrass, country.
Sidenote: If an “it” factor truly exists in music, these girls have IT in spades. This album shows an insane amount of musical growth, and considering they write all their own material, the sky is the limit.
Recommended: My Silver Lining, Shattered & Hollow
- Trampled By Turtles-Wild Animals
Style: With bands selling their souls to be a part of the current Americana revolution, a band that was there at the beginning seems anxious to prove they are much more than just a twangy bluegrass band.
Sidenote: When I heard about the glossy, polished production on their new album, I was determined to hate it. They’ve been one of my favorites for awhile, and I thought they were trying to sell out for top 40. And then I heard Repetition, one of the most beautiful, jaw dropping songs of the year. Game over.
Recommended: Repetition, Wild Animals
- White Lung-Deep Fantasy
Style: Listening to hardcore punkers White Lung is basically being pummeled by guitars for 2-3 minutes. It’s good times!
Sidenote: The backlash to this band is insane. I don’t feel like they’re ripping anyone off (though if you try hard enough, you can find it with any band) or that they’re faking anything. If someone doesn’t want to like them because they feel the band isn’t “authentic’ enough, whatever. I just hope the negativity doesn’t have anything to do with the lead singer in a loud, abrasive punk band being a woman.
Recommended: Down with the Monster, Just for You
Style: Kelis has taken the true meaning of R&B and added her own touches of dirty funk and soul to create an absolute masterpiece.
Sidenote: It’s incredibly rare for any artist to reinvent themselves to the point of Kelis. Before making this album, she was singing over Neptunes and David Guetta beats.
Recommended: Friday Fish Fry, Jerk Ribs
Style: Rap has never seen anything like Clipping. They basically create sounds out of anything, and along with Ratking, Shabazz Palaces, and Flatbush Zombies, are at the forefront of experimental hip-hop. The intelligence and showmanship of MC Daveed Diggs puts them at the top of the ladder.
Sidenote: Their impact and the obvious intelligence of Diggs puts them in position to influence hip-hop in ways not seen since Rage Against the Machine.
Recommended: Wake Up (This generation’s “Come Clean”), Story 2, Taking Off
- Seun Kuti & Egypt 80-A Long Way to the Beginning
Style: Peforming with his father’s legendary group Egypt 80, Seun continues Fela’s Afrobeat style as well as political motivations, but on this album, adds more of his own personality. This leads to more punk and hip-hop involvement. Having producer and legendary jazz musician Robert Glasper on board helps matters as well.
Recommended: IMF (With M1 of Dead Prez), African Smoke
- The Preatures-Blue Planet Eyes
Style: Retro, feel good, jammy , bass slapping rock and roll without overdoing the polish that some bands use on production.
SideNote: This is the album I actually expected (and hoped for) from Jenny Lewis.
Recommended: Somebody’s Talking, Ordinary
- Benjamin Booker-Benjamin Booker (Self-Titled)
Style: Garage rock infused with dirty soul.
Recommended: Violent Shiver, Always Waiting
- Antemasque-Antemasque (Self-Titled)
Style: Straightforward hard rock.
Sidenote: Really guys? Really? You’ve already won the hearts of every hipster with At the Drive-In and The Mars Volta. Now, with no tricks up your sleeve, you come and make the best straightforward hard rock album of the year? Unreal. And by the way, Omar Rodriguez-Lopez is a GOD!
Recommended: Momento Mori, Drown All Your Witches
- The 1978ers (yU & Slimkat)-People of Today
Style: Honest, straightforward lyrics from yU with jazzy production from Slimkat. Seems influenced by A Tribe Called Quest.
Sidenote: yU is my rapper of the year by a wide margin. The guy is on another level, and deserves his just due. Oh, and by the way…he reps the DMV!
Recommended: Without a Clue, P.O.T. Act II
Style: Nick Drake without the all-encompassing depression that comes from listening to his songs.
Recommended: Without a Face, Winter is Passing
- Opeth-Pale Communion
Style: Opeth is a hardcore metal band with with prog-rock influences. On this album, the prog-rock is front and center, there is singing rather than screaming, and incredible music is created.
Sidenote: Hardcore Opeth fans probably all had nervous breakdowns listening to this album, crying about their band selling out. Well, this album is anything but selling out. Whatever genre a person is into, the technical skill they showcase on Pale Communion must be appreciated.
Recommended: Voice of Treason, River
- Marissa Nadler-July
Style: Creepy songs about creepy subjects, played with minimal guitars, strings, and a voice as haunting as I’ve ever heard in my life.
Sidenote: Oh!!! So THIS is what Lana Del Rey pays millions of dollars and gets layers and layers of production to sound like. #Boom
Recommended: Dead City Emily, July
- Cloud Nothings-Here & Nowhere Else
Style: Simple. They plug in their guitars and play loud as hell! I hear a lot of early Replacements in their relentless attack on the senses.
Sidenote: Though still loud, the majority of this album is actually more melodic than I’ve heard from their past creations. Are they maturing??!!
Recommended: Giving Into Seeing, Psychic Trauma
- Joe Henry-Invisible Hours
Style: A man, his guitar, and his voice. Done.
Recommended: Sign, Lead Me On
- Bombay Bicycle Club-So Long, See You Tomorrow
Style: Indie rock songs that sound great on their own are given extra oomph with a world music sonic landscape added on top without overwhelming.
Recommended: Overdone, It’s Alright Now
- Hail Mary Mallon-Bestiary
Style: Back and forth lyrical warfare on each track by Aesop Rock and Rob Sonic over electrified boom bap beats.
Sidenote: A fun album involving Aesop Rock? Wow! I’ll admit that 99% of the time I have no clue what he’s talking about (you may want a thesaurus by your side if you have goals of interpreting his lyrics) but the chemistry between these 2 MC’s is the best I’ve heard from a rap duo in years. Sit your butts down, Run the Jewels.
Recommended: Dollywood (the outlandishness of the country western beat is wild), 4am
- Beck-Morning Phase
Style: Layered vocals combined with simple, hopeful melodies, all surrounded by lush orchestral arrangement’s courtesy of David Campbell, Beck’s father.
Sidenote: When Beck called Morning Phase a companion piece to Sea Change, I immediately worried about how he could have the nerve to mess with the legacy of one of the most beautifully depressing and fulfilling albums I’ve ever heard in my life. Sea Change is an album that fills holes in my soul which nothing else in life can touch. So while this album is beautiful, I can’t help but hear the optimism is this lyrics to Morning Phase and yearn for the escape of Sea Change. All in all, still a fantastic album deserving of accolades.
Recommended: Heart is a Drum, Unforgiven
- St. Paul & The Broken Bones-Half the City
Style: Otis Redding has come back to life!…in the form of a guy who looks like Steven Page, (previously) of Barenaked Ladies before he lost the weight. Never judge a book by its cover, because this is true SOUL.
Recommended: Grass is Greener, Call Me
- The Antlers-Familiars
Style: The soundtrack for introspective thoughts
Recommended: Hotel, Palace
- Lucinda Williams-Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone (Not on Spotify)
Style: Rootsy Americana
Sidenote: Making a double album cohesive all the way through is damn near impossible, but Lucinda Williams is a different kind of artist. If this isn’t her best album, it’s a close second to Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.
Recommended: Protection, West Memphis, Walk On
- The Hotelier-Home, Like Noplace is There
Sidenote: Started in Ian MacKaye-led Washington, DC by hardcore bands, Emo (emotional hardcore) enjoyed a sudden surge of popularity in the 90’s because of the incredible Sunny Day Real Estate, Cap’n Jazz, and early Weezer albums as well as to a lesser extent, the more poppy Jimmy Eat World. Eventually the genre became represented by bands who had no clue about the true meaning, the horrifying “screamo” was created, pop-punk band ripped off everything, and backlash followed. To this day, saying the word “emo” is almost like cursing. But now bands like The Hotelier, Crash of Rhinos, Tennis, Modern Baseball, and Texas is the Reason are bring back real emo, which I’m happy to see.
Sidenote 2: If you want to see an example of how influential this genre can be, watch how the fans hang on every word and feel involved in this Hotelier concert.
Recommended: An Introduction to the Album, Among the Wildflowers
- Rich Robinson-The Ceaseless Sight
Style: Southern bluesy, soulful rock and roll.
Sidenote: 2 things: First, it’s always interesting when the supposed “other brother” in big rock bands like Oasis and The Black Crowes go unnoticed even though they were the ones writing the majority of songs. When the band breaks up and solo material is released, the truth comes out. Second, it amuses me when I hear people say “jam bands” don’t make good studio albums because their material only works when playing live.
Recommended: One Road Hill, This Unfortunate Show
- Cibo Matto-Hotel Valentine
Style: Anti-Pop Pop Music, showing traces of psych, trip-hop, hip-hop, latin, and anything else that fits their mood at the time. Not surprisingly, Sean Lennon has been very impactful on the group.
Sidenote: It’s always nice when a group takes the basic, cliché blueprint for pop music and rips it apart, playing by their own rules.
Recommended: 10th Floor Ghost Girl, Emerald Tuesday
- The Autumn Defense-Fifth
Style: Evocative of 70’s easy, breezy porch rockers, strumming the ol’ geetar while singing tunes and drinking whatever goes down easy.
Sidenote: I can’t seem to put my finger on why this collection of songs makes the leap from enjoyable to #14 album of the year, but it just does something for me. The Autumn Defense may not tug on the emotional heartstrings or technically impress as well as Wilco, but their simplicity is enough for me.
Recommended: I Can’t See Your Face, Can’t Love Anyone Else
- Ariel Pink-Pom Pom
Style: The mad scientist and genius of today’s music world, Pink will and does take risk after risk on each album, creatively pushing boundaries, but never without a sense of humor (“Dinosaur Carebears” and “Jell-O” are somethin’ else!). He’s go from new wave to indie rock to sunny pop to psychedelia to avant-garde without thinking twice
Sidenote: Ariel Pink doesn’t care about what anyone thinks or says, which I believe makes a lot of critics defensive and thin-skinned. It disgusts me to see negative reviews based solely on a personal dislike of Ariel Pink the person. Get over it.
Sidenote 2: How bout a collaboration between Ariel Pink and Ween… Hmm???… Bueller???
Recommended: Dayzed Inn Daydreams, Four Shadows, Lipstick
- Curtis Harding-Soul Power
Style: Yes, it is soulful, funky, and full of rock and roll. But I will not do Harding the disservice of any comparisons to other artists or time periods, or even to his band Night Sun (with Black Lips member Cory Alexander). This is all Curtis Harding.
Sidenote: : I mentioned the “it” factor of First Aid Kid that’s impossible to explain. Instead, it’s a feeling I get when listening to an artist that is pretty close to the voice in Field of Dreams. I genuinely hope that Curtis Harding will be given the power to take his immense talent as far as possible. In layman’s terms, the record industry needs to fund him, promote the hell out of him, and then stay the f_ck out of his way!
Recommended: Keep on Shining, The Drive
- Protomartyr-Under Color of Official Light
Style: Ian Curtis is smiling down on Protomartyr from above. That is all.
Recommended: Come and See, Bad Advice
- Damien Rice-My Favourite Faded Fantasy
Style: Heart wrenching, devastating songs brought to insanely epic and emotional levels by Rick Rubin’s orchestral arrangements.
Sidenote: I’d give anything to know what Jeff Buckley would think about this album.
Recommended: It Takes a Lot to Know a Man, Trusty and True
- Railroad Earth-Last of the Outlaws
Style: Railroad Earth have always played a jam band style of bluegrass deemed “newgrass” and pretty much, with small album to album growth, have continuously released easily digestible albums for stoners just waiting to be performed live. And now this….what the what??!! Do I hear multi-instrument arrangements, tempo changes and room to breathe? Wait…do I hear jazz?? What happened to my Railroad Earth?! While songs like “Monkey” invoke traditional aspects for the band, I still wonder how this album didn’t make more of a national impact. It’s tremendous, and my biggest shocker of the year.
Recommended: The insane 21 minute suite of All That’s Dead May Live Again…, Face with a Hole: In Paradisim
- Clap Your Hands Say Yeah-Only Run
Style: Dreamy art rock with post and prog influences.
Sidenote: At their best, they sound like Radiohead collaborating with M83.
Recommended: Cover Up, As Always
- Ra Scion-Sharper Tool; Bigger Weapon (Produced By Vox Mod)
Style: This is NOT immediately, easily digestible rap. Some MC’s use big words just to sound smart. Ra Scion (some may know him from Common Market and their critically beloved “Tobacco Road”) is the real deal. He is the thinking man’s rapper, but it all makes perfect sense (with an extremely positive message) if you really listen. This album may be 10 years ahead of its time, but I see its greatness right now in the moment. The futuristic production is on another level, and together with the lyrics, makes the listening experience jaw dropping.
Sidenote: Ra Scion created an amazing album called “The Sickle and the Sword”with producer Rodney Hazard. Hazard made a ridiculous contract that Ra refused to sign, and thus the album was pulled. The vocals were still available, though, and Vox Mod created an entirely different and sonically futuristic landscape now available for all to hear.
Recommended: Opalescent Jetsam, Interceptor, Res Publica (With Greg Cyper)
- Spoon-They Want My Soul
Style: Indie Rock, but they cover all the bases.
Sidenote: Really? Really? Is this what it’s come to? Spoon makes another incredible album, and many review it as “eh…Spoon’s sublime, but I already knew that.” Damn hipsters taking Spoon for granted. Nobody creates music finding the perfect blend between indie rock and mainstream immediacy while still changing things up each and every album. Wait, they’ve never even had a top 40 hit? Whatever, brah. Mainstream is the new hipster, haha.
Recommended: Do You, New York Kiss
- The Twilight Sad-Nobody Wants to Be Here & Nobody Wants to Leave
Style: Scottish band The Twilight Sad’s sound is basically emo post-punk. Embrace the melancholy! James Graham’s voice is an instrument in itself. I can’t remember the last time hearing a voice that grabbed and forced me to hang on every word. They even surprise with back to back gems (“In Nowheres” and “Nobody Wants to Be Here…”) with just enough shoegaze to be influential without trapping the music in walls of reverb, feedback, and distortion.
Sidenote: The overall feeling I get when listening to Nobody Wants to Be Here is, while less slickly produced and lyrically more depressing, compared to the moodier songs from The Boxer Rebellion’s discography.
Sidenote 2: “Leave the House” is a song that would sound cheesy from most bands, but manages to leave me emotionally wrecked after each listen.
Recommended: It Never Was the Same, Leave the House, In Nowheres
- The Rural Alberta Advantage-Mended with Gold
Style: Simple, catchy tunes that drummer Paul Banwatt manages to turn into frenetic, heavy metal folk-rock.
There’s something to be said for writing a damn catchy song. If Mended with Gold is meticulously analyzed on a critical level, it won’t hold up, and I won’t pretend that The Rural Alberta Advantage is changing the music world as we know it. But they continuously meet and exceed my increasing standards for each album, and this is no exception. But wait, I see growth! The second half of the album, while still sticking to close to their typical 2:30-3:30 songs, pack the songs with musical techniques that I haven’t previously heard on their records. (especially on “Vulcan, AB”) I’ve never minded the fact that RAA aren’t lyrically dexterous, (pretty much every song is centered on either love or living life on the move) which stands out more because Nils Edenloff’s voice sounds so similar to off the charts songwriter Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel.
Recommended: Terrified, Our Love…, Not Love or Death
- Ty Segall-Manipulator (Not on Spotify)
Style: Psychedelic Garage-glam/acoustic surf-punk because…sure.
Sidenote: This is a brand new Ty Segall. I’m used to him releasing 3 masterpieces a year of lo-fi distortion and feedback (I like to call it fuzzy reverb). Now, for the first time in in his career, Segall has cleaned up the production. At first I was thrown off, but then it became like discovering a brand new artist for me.
Sidenote 2: Though the album loses its steam after 10 songs, those 10 songs are quite a high standard to set.
Recommended: The Clock, Feel, Tall Man Skinny Lady
- Hiss Golden Messenger-Lateness of Dancers
Style: M.C. Taylor has made an album that is just about perfect once you get past the first song Lucia, which is average. Rooted in folk and bluegrass (can I call it Americana?) Lateness of Dancers is at times upbeat, at times relaxing, at times emotional, at times foot-stomping, at times contemplative, at times storytelling, at times bouncy, and all the time a representation of life. So yes…I guess in my opinion this album is the true definition of Americana.
Sidenote: Since I’m posting this on a Duke website, I’ll go ahead and say that those in Durham should be ashamed of themselves if they don’t appreciate the talent that lies right in front of them.
Sidenote 2: Taylor also produced 80 year-old folk legend Alice Gerrard’s album “Follow the Music,” which is amazing. Check it out.
Recommended: My two favorites are Lateness of Dancers and Day O Day (A Love So Free) but I could just as easily recommend Tracks 2-10. Yep, that officially means everything except for the first song.
- The War on Drugs-Lost in the Dream
Style: Layers and layers of swirling production are front and center, but the roots of each song stand on their own. There are no choruses on this album anywhere in existence, making it all the more impressive to create anthems. While Kurt Vile’s influence can still be felt at times, this is all Adam Granduciel. I can only imagine how tirelessly and meticulously Granduciel (who made this album almost like a solo effort after going through a tough year personally) agonized over every detail of Lost in the Dream to achieve it’s magic. I can see some of the comparisons to artists like Springsteen (“Burning”), Don Henley (“Eyes to the Wind”), Dire Straits (“In Reverse”), Dylan (“Lost in the Dream”) Spaceman 3 (nothing overt, but hints are everywhere), etc, but none of them have ever created anything like this album.
Sidenote: This was never close. After my first listen to Lost in the Dream in early March, I contacted Shane Ryan, music and entertainment writer for Paste Magazine, and told Shane to try and schedule an interview with Adam Granduciel, because before long, he would be considered the highlight interview of the music year and have his pick of any magazine. Over a span of about a month, I tweeted a least once per day about the album and posted constant links to songs and performances by the band. When Shane finally got around to listening (after an entire month of my Twitter harassment) he agreed that Lost in the Dream was a special album (and impressively hit on a Kurt Vile comparison without any previous knowledge of the band) . By the time September hit, many were already starting to talk year-end lists, and Lost in the Dream not only caught on, but caught fire. Everyone wanted a piece of the band (even Mark Kozelek, but for a totally different reason that can be found in part 1 of my favorites). Since March, my love for Lost in the Dream has remained strong, even appreciating over time. It’s fun to think back to those early March 2014 memories, when I made it my personal mission to spread the word of Lost in the Dream. You’re welcome, The War on Drugs…you’re welcome!
Recommended: Though I realize every single note on Lost in the Dream serves a purpose, for my enjoyment I would cut off the last 3 minutes of “Under the Pressure,” which is just ambient noise. I wrestle with “Suffering” because lyrically, this song is the best representation of the album as a whole, painting a vivid landscape of Granduciel’s paranoia and inner turmoil. Musically, though, it sticks out like a sore thumb with its minimalistic drone and brood. I’ll admit that it has grown on me over time. “The Huanting Idle” is pointless in my opinion, just like the last 3 minutes of “Under the Pressure,” I can do without the ambient noise unless Brian Eno’s standing next to me judging. Everything else on the album is 10/10.