Favorite Records of 2014

It’s that time again — the one month a year I remember I still have a blog.

But first, questions:

  • Is this the most scattered list of favorite records I’ve ever posted?  I found something to love in just about every genre this year.
  • Why do I insist on posting these things every year when I know I’m going to finally get around to something next week that I missed, and regret posting this at all?
  • Do podcasts count? Because I listened to a lot of those this year.
  • Can you say you work at a record store if you only worked there three times in the year?
  • Where does the time go?

Because ranking only leads to regret, I go with two buckets.

Records I Loved:

Run The Jewels — Run the Jewels 2

What a record, seriously. RTJ2 is a perfect combination of apocalyptic hip hop tracks, a singular lyrical mission, a willingness to blend humor and hyperbole and warts-and-all social commentary, and an undeniable chemistry between two MCs at their competitive best. Listening to RTJ2 makes me feel like my head is going to explode in the best way possible. I wore this record out, and I can’t even listen to it with the kids around.

(Note: best show of the year, too. Unreal.)

D’Angelo and The Vanguard — Black Messiah

How is it possible that a dude who hasn’t released a record in 14 years (and, to be real, only had two records to his name) could suddenly and silently drop a record this mind-boggingly great? “Black Messiah” has only been out a week and I’ve basically stopped listening to all other music; I haven’t checked a play count, but I’m fairly confident I’ve listened to it more than anything except the record above. I’m astounded by the richness of it — it’s this organic, remarkable genre mutation that sounds both totally classic and totally current. That it could live up to the hype is unbelievable.

St Vincent — St. Vincent

An early favorite of the year, and one I was really passionate about for months after its release. I feel like this is the best record Annie Clark has made — the first one that really nails the balance between her synthetic aesthetic and the raw and human side of her songs. It reminds me a bit of “Speaking in Tongues” (one of my favorite Talking Heads records) — a well-crafted record equally willing to be played as pop and art.

Sturgill Simpson — Metamodern Sounds in Country Music

My complaint about the americana/alt-country/etc genre is that it’s such a narrow sound, and the dividing line is essentially impossible to discern in most cases. I’ve seen Sturgill Simpson mention that he hates when people call this a country record, but c’mon — this it the most “country music” sounding record I have in my collection by a long shot. It doesn’t matter, though, because this record is brilliant — and this is coming from a guy who really doesn’t like country music. Personally, it’s refreshing to hear someone take the genre seriously; to see someone push the boundaries of what a country song can sound like and be about but without sounding like a half-informed impression of country music, which is what most alt-country music sounds like (and I can say this because I was once in an alt-country band). This record is magnetic.

Spoon — They Want My Soul

How do they make it sound so effortless? Spoon continues to have the best track record of any working band. Any record with “Rent I Pay,” “Inside Out,” and “Do You” has to be in a best-of list, regardless of the other songs.

Wye Oak — Shriek

I hope Jenn Wassner never picks up another guitar, because I prefer “Shriek” — the “we’re just doing keyboards, bass, and drums now” Wye Oak record — to anything they’ve ever done by a long shot. It’s impressive how confident they sound in this reinvention — it’s dreamy but propulsive, shoegazey but not shy about its pure technical proficiency. Here’s to hoping they do an encore record.

Hamilton Leithauser — Black Hours

Sure, I miss The Walkmen. But in their hiatus came three great records — my favorite of which is Hamilton Leithauser’s (criminally overlooked) solo debut. Frontmen making solo records is a losing proposition — fans naturally want it to sound like the band, but will slog if off if it sounds too much like the band. This, impressively, lands somewhere in between — yeah, it sounds like The Walkmen, but a record they never made. I like the orchestral flourishes and the raspy-Sinatra-singing-torch-songs-at-5AM vibe. The songs are great. If The Walkmen name had been on it, we would have all flipped out about how great this is.

The War on Drugs — Lost in the Dream

It’s a little strange to say one of my favorites of the year is a record the reminds me of 80’s era Tom Petty and Dire Straits and Bruce Springsteen; all artists I have respect for but not a whole lot of undying love. This was one of the most anticipated records of the year for me, and honestly — 8 months later — I think I prefer the general feeling of “Slave Ambient” over this one, but I can’t deny that this is a huge step forward for The War on Drugs as songwriters.

Walter Martin — We’re All Young Together

In a lot of ways, this charming little record could be my secret favorite of the year. It’s certainly soundtracked some of the best moments of my year. The second record from an ex-Walkmen member in my list; this record is often described as a “children’s record” but that sells it considerably short. This is well-worn, traditional, campfire song pop music — songs about tigers and snakes and trips to the zoo and families and The Beatles, played with a childlike enthusiasm and innocence that reminds me more than a little of Jonathan Richman. It’s so unassuming and sweet-natured that it’s hard not to love it completely. And it’s always going to make me think of my kids at the ages of 4 and a half and 1 and a half. Everyone in my house loves this record.

Courtney Barnett — The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas

Incredible debut. Courtney Barnett’s songwriting talent is palatable but hard to describe — it’s all about this charming (yet cutting) simplicity that perfectly matches her voice and the presentation, which reminds me a bit of Neil Young and a bit of Pavement and a bit of Kurt Vile and a bit of Bob Dylan. It’s totally unassuming and completely charming.

Records I Really Liked:

Real Estate — Atlas

Cheatahs — Cheatahs

Ty Segall — Manipulator

Tweedy — Sukierae

Damien Jurado — Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son

Peter Matthew Bauer – Liberation!

EDJ — EDJ

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