The Bestest 2014: Tunage

Listen while you read:
It is hard to tell whether the state of music in 2014 was more a tribute to the past than an expression of the future, or perhaps I am just getting older and my tastes are just a reflection of latent nostalgia. The many records that I loved this year tended to lean toward the folkie, the psychedelic, and rustic Americana. There were a few exceptions where synthesizers and thinly disguised electronica or new wave sounds cut through the acoustic guitars. I guess it doesn’t really matter why, what matters is that there was more music released this year that will age gracefully and never sound dated than usual. But in the end, when everyone has 35M tracks at their fingertips for $10 a month, there will forever be more than enough good music to occupy whatever time you manage to find. 2014 was a very good year.


  1. Sharon Van EttenAre We There (Jagjaguar)Along with Neko Case, Sharon Van Etten has one of the most powerful and hypnotic voices in modern music. Lyrically she mines her soul for that triumphantly broad range of emotions that comes with a broken heart and then, like shooting clay pigeons, picks them off with gorgeous but unsentimental detachment.“Are We Here” is an album of wonderfully varied styles, from the ethereal folktronica of “Our Love” to the rustic countrified Americana (think Emmylou Harris or Lucinda Williams) on “Every Time The Sun Comes Up” to the stinging, soaring rock of “Taking Chances.” Despite covering so much elegant ground there is nothing derivative about anything she creates. In some cases seeing an artist live creates the necessary context to fully appreciate the recorded music, and although one might imagine a dark and quiet show, Sharon Van Etten brings a relentless humor to her otherwise dark and contemplative music. There was no other record that moved me quite as much this year.
  1. War On Drugs Lost In The Dream (Secretly Canadian)Sometimes you just need to believe the hype and listen to the music and then separate yourself from the ancillary praise. I was too young to really understand the pre-MTV music of Tom Petty and the rest of the early 80’s post classic rock Americana, but with the silky smooth Lost in The Dream War on Drugs have recreated something largely forgotten over time.Led by the hazy understated vocals of Adam Granduciel, the band blends old timey guitar rock with modern synthesizers to create something that transcends the genre. This is mood music, recalling long summer days or cold winter nights. On “Eyes To the Wind” something that resembles a kind of forgotten anthem, the music just takes its time getting somewhere that feels like the kind of dream you remember only faintly. In an “albumless” era, this is a work that is much more than the sum of its parts.
  1. Nick Mulvey- First Mind (Harvest Records)Following in the recent onslaught of precocious brilliant young British folkies (Laura Marling and Michael Kiwanuka to name a few), Nick Mulvey has written one of lushest records of its kind in quite a while. With his intricate guitar fingering, and silky smooth vocals, Mulvey channels everyone from Nick Drake to Sweden’s Jose Gonzalez.His largely acoustic framework often builds to anthemic compositions filled with violins, and subtle electronica and steady percussive beats. Like most Mercury Prize nominees, his music somehow missed both the American hipster set, and the crossover landscape that has embraced Mumford and Hozier. Standouts like “Cucurucu” and “Meet Me There” would be legit singles if they had been released by Dave Matthews, but fortunately will be beautiful private secrets for a while longer.
  1. Future Islands – Singles (4AD)Funny how the modern hype cycle works: Ten year-old band, three records into their critically acclaimed but essentially niche career, perform their song “Seasons” on the David Letterman show (not even Fallon) led by a singer who looks like a young balding Marlon Brando, but sounds more like Fine Young Cannibal’s Roland Gift, dressed in pleated pants, and dancing like a new wave duck. The performance blows up on YouTube, launching them from 200 person live venues to 5,000 seat affairs. Couldn’t happen to nicer guys who seem so genuinely appreciative of the opportunity.Backstory aside, Singles is a great record from beginning to end. It’s 80’s synth-driven new wave pop, but unlike the icy computer music of the late 70’s and early 80’s, this music is rich with emotion. On “Sun In The Morning”, Samuel T. Herring wears his heart shamelessly on his sleeve and on “Seasons (Waiting On You)” you hear the sound of the band celebrating the pure joy of making music for its own sake.
  1. Real EstateAtlas (Domino)Real Estate makes some of the most pristine and oddly upbeat yet introspective music today. Shimmering, but steady guitars and drums create a kind of surreal canvas through which you can almost see time passing slowly before you, but it’s almost like you’re being drawn back into your youth. Like Luna, and fellow New Jerseyites The Feelies before them, the ten songs on “Atlas” are pure dream pop, escapist rock for the nerd set.There is nothing abstract lyrically, but merely perfectly crafted pop songs about people and places and states of mind. Tunes like “Hard to Hear” and “Talking Backwards” just kind of roll along towards some kind of ambiguous destination on the long road of life. Simplicity is the easily the hardest thing to accomplish creatively, but Real Estate make it look so .. well .. simple.
  1. Angus and Julia Stone Angus and Julia Stone (American Recordings)Great records occasionally fall between the cracks. They are too perfect and too complete as a whole to be consumed quickly enough in our attention-challenged world. Aussie siblings Angus and Julia combine rock and folk, are hip but not hipsters, and write songs that just take a little while to get under your skin before making a familiar kind of sense.Under the tutelage of Rick Rubin, this eponymous album is a groovy tribute to all that has come before, complete with jazzy keys and steady percussion. All that has come back in the form of modern guitar rootsiness. Julia sings in a kind of hushed smokiness (“My Word For It”), while Angus seems to take his time meandering through quiet jams like the sublime “Get Home.” That Angus and Julia still haven’t nailed the audience they deserve makes this record even more special.
  1. AsgeirIn The Silence (One Little Indian)Imagine an Icelandic Bon Iver–dreamy, ethereal songs filled with brass, jazzy drums and icy cool electronic blips. Imagine a singer whose smooth falsetto vocals just melts into the music and hangs quietly, the kind of atmosphere you assume defines a wintery island that is home to a volcano. That is what Asgeir Trausti’s beautiful debut album does. It transports you to some kind of peaceful place.On the sublime “Head in the Snow,” if you listen closely, you hear a quiet, fragile optimism that sounds familiar, but is actually quite special. This is not party music. This is not superficially cool, but points to a kind of precious confidence that just kind of works as the diamond in the rough you’ll be able to share with the small handful of people lucky enough to have found it.
  1. BeckMorning Phase (Geffen)When you have been making music for as long as Beck, for a large and both commercial and critical fan base, through many mutations, you have the freedom to make whatever kind of music you want. Although there have been a few Beck records over the years that veered off course for me, it was always the outliers that resonated the most: Mutations, Sea Change and the criminally under heard One Foot In the Grave.Morning Phase is the culmination of everything he has been working on since he started as a fixture on the anti-folk circuit in the early 90’s. It is a gorgeous experiment in mood and tone. It is music by which to watch clouds move across the sky, or snow fall, or suns rise. It is a waking dream of sorts – both melodramatic and mellow.
  1. Temples – Sun Structures (Fat Possum Records)I wasn’t old enough to read when the music that inspired Temples, a band of young Brits literally half my age, was making waves. On the surface Sun Structures shares more in common with bands like The Byrds and Hurdy Gurdy era Donovan than it does anything made in the past twenty years, but despite these older reference points, the music is aggressively modern. The breezy ten songs are a mix of psychedelia and pristine pop.Like Tame Impala and Artic Monkeys before them, what’s old is very much new again. On tunes like “Sun Structures” there are beautifully fuzzed out guitars and silky smooth vocals rising and falling like stars from the late 60’s. On the inevitably classic “Move with the Seasons” it is easy to forget you are living in the internet age, but more the age of Aquarius. Just let the record play.
  1. Yellow Ostrich – Cosmos (Barsuk Records)In a year without new music from Local Natives and Grizzly Bear, “Cosmos” was the album that neatly plugged that gaping hole. Yellow Ostrich plays moody, serious music that mixes soaring vocal melodies with steady drum lines and occasionally stinging guitars.The album drifts between rock jams like “Any Wonder” and dreamy percussive driven ballads like “Neon Fists.” Although “Cosmos” becomes more accessible with every listen, this is a dark experimental album that makes one contemplate the meaning of the relationships that we have and the ones that we wish we had.
  1. Elbow The Take Off and Landing of Everything (XL)For some reason Americans just don’t get Elbow. Perhaps it is that to really appreciate what they are doing takes patience, and Americans are not patient people. More than any band I can think of, they write songs that often start off slowly before exploding like time-lapsed flowers into beautiful walls of sound.On “My Sad Captains” (perhaps my favorite song of the year) there are lyrics that could have been lifted from a Dicken’s novel: “I’m running out of miracles / and the streets alive with one man shows / the corner boys were moved along;” vocals sung by a hipster choirboy, Elbow transports you somewhere else completely. Their music is always grounded in a steady percussive backdrop, but Elbow garnishes each song with a small orchestra of brass and keyboards adding another layer of beauty and complexity.
  1. Sturgill Simpson Metamodern Sounds In Country Music (High Top Mountain Records)This might be the most purely “country” album I have fallen for this hard since discovering the classic Gram Parsons records in college. Metamodern Sounds is cut from a much different cloth than the increasingly popular modern country music that is popular today. It taps into older musical themes like religion, booze, and love lost and found, but lyrically sounds somehow strangely contemporary.This is an album is filled with old-timely outlaw country jams like “Living the Dream” but also meanders between warmer acoustic stories like “Voices” and more 70’s hippie country ballads like the desert island classic “Turtles All The Way Down.” Blues and Country are America’s most original musical inventions. Sometimes you just need to go back in time to understand the present. This is really something special.
  1. Mac DeMarco Salad Days (Captured Tracks)This is a slithering melodic ramble through some sort of hazy modern dreamscape. For all its apparent whimsy, DeMarco (not his real name), hailing from Brooklyn (by way of Montreal) and sounding stony (despite the fact that he claims he doesn’t) is a serious (or seriously good) second album by a guy who wants us to believe “it was no big deal.”Salad Days is part Beck, part Brian Wilson, part something that used to come on late at night at the local college radio station played by some reclusive music nerd. There are weird pop songs like the exquisite ‘Blue Boy’ and jazzier numbers like ‘Brother’ that feel more like Steely Dan than something out of Williamsburg. This is a weird and wonderful concoction.
  1. Hospitality Trouble (Merge)Another infectious 90’s retro throwback album alluding to Luscious Jackson by way of something else strangely contemporary. This is a pop record filled with conventionally standard guitar and drums, but also with endless catchiness and wonderful songwriting. Led by the relentless upbeat vocals of Amber Papini, the band’s second album is a minor masterpiece, pulling no punches but hitting all the right chords.There are a few songs that probably just miss hitting the same main street vein that Haim or MS MR hit last year like the infectious “I miss You Bones.” Unlike many of the more serious records that I loved this year, ‘Trouble’ is 100% fun. It asks only that you enjoy the music, and get lost for 38 minutes in a sea of shiny pop.
  1. Stephen Malkmus and The Jicks – Wig Out at the Jagbags (Matador)Once a Malkmus fan always a Malkmus fan. There will never be another indie rock run as perfect as the one he cut with Pavement in the 90’s. In some ways it reminds me of what the Grateful Dead did in the 70’s which is why Wig Out’s homage to the Dead seems so perfect. Alternating between straight up guitar riff lifting like the opening strums of “Cinnamon and Lesbians” that channel “St. Stephen,” and the lyrically brilliant “we lived on Tennyson, and Venison and the Grateful Dead” from “Lariat.”Still the cleverest lyricist on the planet, Malkmus seems perfectly comfortable settling into his middle 40’s a hunkered down family man living in the Portland, no longer concerned with keeping up with the cool kids – if he ever really did? He has always managed to infuse a kind of academic whimsy into his music, but this time around we get two great tastes that taste great together.
  1. TV on the Radio – Seeds (Harvest Records)For over a decade, TV on The Radio has been making some of the most challenging, genre bending albums on the planet. Punk, funk, electronic, and new wave – it’s all weirdly there. The band’s earliest records were discordant difficult efforts, hard for me to connect with emotionally, but oddly compelling.Seeds is the bands most accessible, most purely pop record yet. Still edgy at its core, and driven by the soaring vocals of Tunde Adebimpe, the band packs a kind of urgent intensity into increasingly compact pop songs. ‘Careful You’ and ‘Trouble’ are two of the best songs they have ever written, but dark and light and filled with some of their own unique brand of passion.


A bunch of other stuff that you must hear below the fold…

  1. The New Pornograhers Brill Bruisers (Matador)Another rock solid power pop masterpiece from my favorite super group of the past 15 years. Three songwriters, three vocalists, three times the catchiness.
  2. Steve Gunn – Way Out Weather (Paradise of Bachelors)Like Philly brethren Kurt Vile and War on Drugs, Gunn is a product of another age and another time, lost in a 70’s dream.
  3. Sun Kil MoonBenji (Caldo Verde)Mark Kozelek has been making this very specific and tragically funny music for three decades now, and despite his increasing curmudgeonly exterior hasn’t lost a single step or changed a thing. This is a good thing.
  4. Courtney Barnett – The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas (Mom & Pop)Not since Liz Phair’s ‘Exile” has there been a debut record like this one: funny, cool, competent and fun.
  5. Angel OlsenBum Your Fire for No Witness (Jagjaguar)More dark folky, gritty goodness, that both rocks and warbles its way under your skin.
  6. Syd Arthur – Sound Mirror (Harvest Records)More perfect psych pop from a bunch of young brits obsessed with the past, but in tune with the present.
  7. Chuck Prophet – Night Surfer (Yep Rock)Like an indie rock Bruce Springsteen, this record seems criminally under-heard given its broad palette of genuine anthems.
  8. Wye Oak – Shriek (Merge)Like fellow Baltimore residents Beach House, Wye Oak have made some of the sexiest, most dreamily melodic music of the year.
  9. Merchandise – After The End (4AD)An eerily accurate amalgam of some of my favorite bands as a teenager in the 80’s –e.g., The Smiths, The Go-Betweens.
  10. Spoon – They Want My Soul (Merge)What can I say that hasn’t already been said. Spoon is still as solid as a … spoon.
  11. Caribou– One Love (Merge)There is a critical and subtle difference between soulless EDM and electronic dance music, and what Dan Snaith has done this time around. That difference makes all the difference.
  12. Alvvays – Alvvays (Ribbon)Sometimes I just crave perfectly crafted pop songs- no bells, no whistles just lovely female vocals with some poppy drums and guitars.
  13. First Aid Kit – Stay Gold (Atlantic)Two Swedish sisters well versed in the very best 70’s folk, have made one of the most American sounding records of the year.


Listen to the bestest of the bestest