Across the spectrum of genres, 2014 was a great year for songs. Singer-songwriters had their revenge: Sharon Van Etten’s “Your Love Is Killing Me,” the break-up song of the year, drove our emotions into the gutter and we liked it, while Sun Kil Moon’s “Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes” fully possessed us, its rambling, insistent, memoiristic narrative more akin to an essay by John Jeremiah Sullivan than anything else. Summertime bristled with dizzying rap singles: Scarface’s “No Problem”, a one-verse, tough-beat assertion of his enduring grit, hit like a two-by-four to the side of the head, and Busta Rhymes and Eminem owned the second half of the season with their epic rap battle “Calm Down.”
With so much good music happening this year (two new albums from Parquet Courts?) it seemed difficult to stay on top of it all—I mean, Kanye might still release an album before this year is out. Nonetheless, certain records remained in constant rotation and repeat listens revealed the exquisite layers of expertly woven albums. This is the Elite 8 of 2014.
8. Strand of Oaks — HEAL
Stepping away from his penchant for highly conceptual songwriting, Timothy Showalter turned his latest effort into a living memoir. HEAL is deeply personal, mostly detailing various patches of Showalter’s life from childhood through the present. The lyrics are witty, sad and affecting, yet this is a rock album first. Full of excellent guitar jams, this is the most exciting Strand of Oaks record to date. Despite a vicious guest guitar solo by legend J. Mascis early on, it is Showalter who pulls out the gnarliest riffs on his Crazy Horse-worthy meditation on Jason Molina, “JM.”
7. Peter Matthew Bauer — Liberation!
The demise of the oft-beloved and sometimes misunderstood Walkmen last year had a silver lining. It offered us three new solo albums from individual members of the band. While lead singer Hamilton Leithauser’s impressive Black Hours received the most attention, Peter Matthew Bauer’s inspired Liberation! achieved the highest mark. The songs reflect Bauer’s interests in a soulful sort of vintage rock and roll, evoking late-’60s/early-’70s Rolling Stones in the best of ways. There are plenty of high-energy burners on Liberation! but also sparse moments like the quiet piano figure of “Istanbul Field Recordings.” “Latin American Ficcones” is the heart of this album, its wild, gritty guitars and powerful drums lay a groundwork for Bauer’s weary, endearing voice.
6. Chad VanGaalen — Shrink Dust
A wonderful deluge of country-psych music, Shrink Dust is all-things VanGaalen—creepy, magical and enthralling. He wastes no time: The opener “Cut Off My Hands” positions finger-picked guitar, distant pedal steel and eerie keyboards alongside his surrealistic lyrics—“Captured by the jackals and thrown into a hole/They tortured you for days and then let you go home.” His arrangements dance between the traditional and the weird, making great use of every analog synthesizer in his studio. The production is warm, experimental and mesmerizing throughout, further cementing VanGaalen’s ability to create distinct worlds with each of his records.
5. Robyn & Röyksopp — Do It Again
Robyn and Röyksopp officially dropped Do It Again as an EP, but it feels like a fully formed collaboration nonetheless. Pairing the Swedish pop star’s smart, populist leanings with the work of electronic mainstays Röyksopp has resulted in one of the best dance music albums of the year. The collection of five songs is designed for all aspects of a club night: the downtempo tracks leading up to the big night out (“Monument”), the tracks for the hottest moments on the dance floor (“Sayit”, “Do It Again”) and the tracks for the sunrise come-down back at your friend’s loft (“Every Little Thing”, “Inside the Idle Hour Club”). Robyn’s voice is commanding, Röyksopp’s production is exceptional and the conceit, while brief, is exceptionally realized.
4. Perfume Genius — Too Bright
Rarely is an indie-rock album so approachable, so weird and so good at the same time. Those screams on “Grid,” that insistent synth-bass and the enveloping vocal chanting—it shouldn’t work but it’s all so perfect. Harrowing and measured and wild and rocking and intimate and noisy at different turns, Too Bright is the strongest musical statement from Perfume Genius’ Mike Hadreas. He has always had a masterful command over words, only now has he finally discovered the myriad ways in which the music can match the vast range of his powerful lyricism.
3. Andy Stott — Faith in Strangers
Stott’s second record occupies a seductive space between ambient noise, down-tempo and fully-committed dance music. He adorns these tracks with layer after layer of atmosphere, effectively transporting the listener to a new latitude. The attention to detail here is deep—Portishead deep. His skill for expertly crafted compositions applies to the entire album as much as it does to each song. Released in a year steeped with great heady releases from Ben Frost, Ryan Hemsworth and Clark, Stott’s Faith in Strangers is the gold standard.
2. Angel Olsen — Burn Your Fire For No Witness
Olsen’s Half Way Home (2012) put the young songwriter on the map: Her enduring voice and poignant songcraft were immediate. Yet, the record felt distant, homemade and private—almost as if someone had stolen the tapes and put them out without Olsen’s approval. On Burn Your Fire, Olsen hits us head-on with a collection of what can only be described as bad-ass love songs that address the beauty of love, the danger of love, the love between partners and the love within families. The first single “Forgiven/Forgotten” announced this collection like an explosion—quick, destructive, captivating. Its fuzzy edges and rippling guitar felt like an old barn-burner from Neutral Milk Hotel (think “Holland, 1945”). While other songs embrace this newer, tougher version of Olsen, the haunting, methodical songwriting that first introduced her voice remains intact on standouts like “Unfucktheworld” and “White Fire”; yet the crowning moment is “Windows,” an ethereal builder that recalls the work of the Antlers. This is one of the most assured albums from a singer-songwriter this year.
1. Freddie Gibbs & Madlib — Pinata
Popular hardcore rap, despite its explicit, violent themes, has dissolved into parody over the last decade. Rappers seem to drop rhymes about street-life simply because it sells records not because they are actually attempting to reflect a grimy aspect of the human condition. Pinata (originally entitled Cocaine Pinata), however, is so hard it makes the Game sound like Disneyland. And it’s not because Freddie Gibbs is singing about more ultraviolent topics than the Game—in fact, he’s not—it’s that he has found that key element the Game and others are missing: a voice.
Like a classic author, Gibbs’s aesthetic and delivery is so locked-in that he would be compelling whether he was rapping about selling drug deals or used cars. Recalling the spirit of Mobb Deep on The Infamous or Ghostface and Raekwon on Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, Gibbs isn’t stuck on the glorification of street life as much as he is interested in reporting it. Bolstering Gibbs’s emerging voice is the untouchable production by Madlib. A genius of reconfigured jazz and soul samples, Madlib’s vinyl soundscapes match perfectly with Gibbs’s reflections.
“Shitsville” and “Thuggin’” are among the best songs of 2014, period. Both frightening and hypnotic, they read like dispatches from modern American life belying the reality that two artists took time to pen these lyrics, make these beats and put them down on tape. The key to Pinata’s longevity is its diversity—for all of the hard-talk about guns and drugs there is real-talk about Gibbs’ emotions, best reflected on the half-drug-deal, half-heart-break dichotomy of “Deeper.” Ultimately, Pinata doesn’t hype street life, it humanizes it.
Andre Perry lives and works in Iowa City.