2014 was probably the “smoothest” year I can remember in music for quite some time. By that, I mean it was the year where polished pop music finally became cool again, and was totally embraced by the indie kids. That’s definitely reflected in my choices below; it’s by far the most “pop-driven” list of any of my end of year recaps, in all the years I’ve been blogging. And I think that’s actually a really, really cool thing.
Below are in no particular order, because I’m a rebel like that.
Bastille – Bad Blood
Just a great, great album. There’s something here for everyone, and – although that sometimes can water down an album in other cases – in this case, Bad Blood is only stronger for it. From start to finish, Dan Smith speaks both for and to you, in completely predictable ways – but damned if that doesn’t just make me enjoy this more. Sometimes predictability isn’t a bad thing… it’s predictable because it feels right, natural. As a result, there’s a comfort and familiarity listening to these tunes, like it’s your favourite band from years ago; all this despite the fact that it’s Bastille’s debut album (EPs and previous singles aside).
Synth-laden and electronic pop that will appeal to fans of Mumford and the likes. Give it a spin.
Standout track: In an album of stand-out singles? Tough, but I’d have to go with album opener, “Pompeii”.
Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City
So, I’ve had a thing about VW in the past. I caught myself humming along to their tunes, but in a lot of ways, I just couldn’t get into them as much as others did. Don’t get me wrong, I knew they were great at crafting catchy hooks, but whenever I tried to listen to a full album of theirs, something just seemed… off. There was a lot of hype and glossy style there, but they just couldn’t sustain me all the way through.
With “Modern Vampires of the City”, however, that all changed. In an interview with the New York Times, Ezra Koenig said, “In the past, I think a lot of our songs have had detours… I feel like every song on this album has a purpose”, and when I read that, I finally knew what was different. Ezra was spot on in his own awareness of their music; it’s the most complete album of theirs yet, and one that I can totally get in to. I don’t think it’s their most mature album – people have been using that label like they’ve been immature before – but I do think it’s their most focussed album.
Standout track: Unbelievers
Chvrches – The Bones of What You Believe
Wow. Wow wow wow. Ok, seriously, find me a stronger album opening in 2013 than the trio of tunes that open, “The Bones of What You Believe”. Honestly, I’m hard pressed to think of a stronger opening act at all, come to think about it. “The Mother We Share”, already hyped in my own mind as one of the year’s best songs prior to the album’s release, was then followed by the even catchier “We Sink”, with “Gun” rounding out the hat-trick.
Overall, just a super-strong album, with only “You Caught the Light” seeming the odd tune out in terms of enjoyment. But, that aside, probably my favourite album of the year – and, again, it’s synth-driven electro-pop. I’m a singer-songwriter/folk/americana stalwart… what the heck happened in 2013??!
Standout track: We Sink
The National – Trouble Will Find Me
So, we should probably get this out of the way: if you weren’t a The National fan before this album, I’m not sure this will be the one to turn you around. Like most albums from the band, it’s not an immediate winner. At first listen, you’ll probably be hard pressed to remember a “single”. But after multiple spins, you’ll find you just keep coming back to it, again and again… likely with a wistful sense of nostalgic desperation. Let’s be clear, it’s no Alligator, nor Boxer — but if you’ve grown with these guys from the beginning, it’s exactly where the album needed to be.
Self-aware to the extreme, it’s a slow burner that will bury itself deep inside your mind. The frantic sounds of Alligator aren’t here, and if that’s what you’re looking for, you’ll be disappointed. But there’s something a whole lot more menacing, if weary, here.
Standout track: Graceless
Haim – Days Are Gone
You know, it was kind of inevitable that there would be the backlash against Haim. Danielle and Este Haim were a tween-pop outfit. “Valli Girls”, put together by Richard Marx (yes, that Richard Marx), prior to striking out on their own with younger sister, Alana. So, already, they’re tarnished with the “manufactured” label. And the production values on “Days Are Gone” don’t help their case; it’s so slick, so damn polished, that you’d immediately think that means it eliminates any personality, any soul from the release.
But somehow, Haim pull it off. Perhaps it’s because they’re just so insanely, insanely talented. “Days Are Gone” is an amazing debut for the sisters, and one that really isn’t worthy of the current hipster backlash on the LA trio. Because when you get down to it and throw all those preconceptions away, this is just a band making ridiculously tight music. So do your part and enjoy it.
Standout track: The Wire
Vance Joy – God Loves You When You’re Dancing
Vance Joy, aka James Keogh, put out one of the Australian releases of the year, with his “God Loves You When You’re Dancing” EP. At 5 songs and around 24 minutes long, it all-too-fleeting, but for that short period of time you absolutely lose yourself in blissful, layered texturing, and heartbreaking tunes.
You would have been hard-pressed to get away from lead single, “Riptide” this year, but trust me – Vance Joy is no one-hit-wonder. All 5 songs on this EP are captivating, particularly album closer, “From Afar”
Standout track: From Afar
Phosphorescent – Muchacho
Matthew Houck’s latest is one of my favourites from him – as always, the voice is faltering, and seemingly fragile; but Houck just lays it all out there with such raw honesty, those cracks and breaks make it seem all the more real.
There are some serious echoes of “Cold Roses”-era Cardinals in some of the tunes here, which is probably why I like it so much.
Standout track: The Quotidian Beasts
Griffin House – Balls
Griffin House had an incredible 2007, when the popular “Flying Upside Down” came out. Critics raved about his warm, comfortable tunes, and great things were expected. Then “Learner” followed that in 2010, and reviews were… disappointing, to say the least. So I was absolutely stoked to hear Griffin House’s return with the simply-titled “Balls” this year.
Balls sounds like House at his most comfortable in years. And I love having him back.
Standout track: Go Through It
Daft Punk – Random Access Memories
Maybe not the album that EDM were hoping would come from Daft Punk, but definitely the album that EDM needed. It’s no surprise that DP went so purposefully away from the EDM riffs that they so strongly influenced on this record, and leaned heavily into the disco and funk from the 70s and 80s. You can’t help but think Daft Punk look at what has been wrought over the last few years with a bit of sadness. Which is why they came out with something so much damn fun.
Like their album opener says, “Give Life Back to Music”. Random Access Memories certainly does.
Standout track: Lose Yourself to Dance
Josh Ritter – The Beast in its Tracks
Ok, so I’m going to be brutally honest here – this is no “The Animal Years”. It’s possible that this won’t make many people’s “Best of 2013” lists, unless they’re massive fans of Josh Ritter and have this weird music-crush on the dude.
I’m one of those people.
This album, his “breakup album”, following his divorce in 2011, is at times wistful, sometimes spiteful, and fleetingly hopeful. I still believe that Ritter is one of the best lyricists of our time, and that’s on painful display in this album. His confronting honesty, combined with his masterful turn of phrase, turns some of these songs into cutting rapiers.
Standout track: A Certain Light
Volcano Choir – Repave
Unexpectedly great release from Justin Vernon’s “second-tier” project. I say unexpected, not because I doubt Justin Vernon, nor Collection of Colony of Bees chops; just because 2009’s Unmap was, well… underwhelming. But with this follow up album, Volcano Choir looks set to become the Tier 1 piece in Justin Vernon’s quill. In fact, there’s a joy here that seems to have been lost in the confines of Bon Iver’s mythical status.
Freedom and lack of expectations sounds good on Volcano Choir.
Standout track: Byegone
Note - Part of this post was contributed to the always awesome "Masey's Top Albums of the Year" roundup - I'd encourage you to head on over there to check out some picks from other contributors!