The Top 25 Albums of 2014

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The Top 25 Albums of 2014

Let’s start with our annual caveat: lists are inherently subjective and should not be taken too seriously. (It’s not like anyone can listen to every single album that comes out in a year, and then analyze them fully, right?) Still, in this context they can help distill the thousands and thousands of records released in 2014 in order to highlight some that merit further attention. To that end, Weeping Elvis polled its editors and select pool of contributors, musicians and music geeks to formulate a list of The Top 25 Albums of 2014. We had our own share of disagreement — particularly amongst The Editors — and what follows is a thoughtful, logic-driven distillation of that argument to its lowest common denominator. Which isn’t a bad thing — we’re looking at you, cable news channels — the process is also known as “finding common ground.”

As you read, you can listen to our Spotify playlist (end of the page) featuring top tracks from each of the 25 honorees.

 

Alvvays25. AlvvaysAlvvays
Go ahead, try to find a catchier piece of indie pop from the past year. Seriously, try…but prepare to embrace failure. Alvvays, a fresh-but-familiar Toronto-based five-piece, has created stupefying-ly perfect fuzzy-indie-jangle-pop that lends itself to fits of foot-tapping and head-nodding. Earworms fill the album, from the marriage proposal bliss of “Archie, Marry Me” to the propellant bass lines and hazy melancholy of “Next of Kin.” Even when the subject matter turns dark and brooding– and it does, often — Molly Rankin’s vocals find a way to leave the listener with a pleasant aftertaste. Their debut album speaks volumes about their potential, and already ranks among the better records released in a hyper specific subgenre that continues to generate a unique brand of affectation, two generations after its debut.     — Behrnsie

 

SamSmith-InTheLonelyHour24. Sam SmithIn the Lonely Hour
It (almost) makes us sad that Sam Smith and his freshman effort In the Lonely Hour have so quickly found their way into the mainstream. While a handful of major-category Grammy nominations prove that the music industry is paying attention, my worry is that the cognoscenti will miss Smith’s amazing artistry amidst his popular appeal. Simply put: he is the most wonderfully unique and dynamic male singer to debut in quite some time. He can make sounds that would be impossible for other great singers. A recent ACL Fest set brought some very funky jams a la Earth, Wind and Fire and Stevie Wonder wrapped around the killer vocals of an unlikely rock star. He has discussed being only two years removed from his “shit job in a pub,” so the transition has been a quick one. Whether you term it “blue-eyed soul” or brand him as the male Adele, do not let hype nor popularity keep you from experiencing this ridiculously talented artist.     — Clem

 

RuralAlbertaAdvantage-MendedWithGold23. The Rural Alberta AdvantageMended With Gold
The Canadian trio known semi-popularly as The Rural Alberta Advantage is possibly the best indie band you don’t know. Their latest record solidifies their place as a thoughtful, wistful, and rocking alternative to the lamestream. Tracks like “On the Rocks” pull heartstrings with a tenderness often associated with another Toronto-based artist, Hayden, while “Terrified” intonates darkly as it humanizes the search for love and peace amidst a certifiable sing-a-long. Invariably, their songs are well-crafted and each create moments that draw the listener into the cozy and occasionally disconcerting world of Nils Edenloff. The Alberta-born bandleader looks like a computer programmer and sings with a methodical yet emotive verve that, in his words, rely upon “honesty and earnestness” to envelop listeners in their warm cocoon. His — theirs — is a world in which you can lose yourself, again and again, emerging each time with a breadth of new (yet familiar) experiences.     — Behrnsie

 

Old97s-MostMessedUp22. The Old 97sMost Messed Up
There aren’t many bands who still ride the cowpunk train. But here are Dallas’s Old 97s, plugging along 20 years hence with yet another collection of whiskey-soaked tunes. If you hear them live for the first time, you might ask where they pulled all these great barroom country cover songs from … until you realize that all those songs are in fact theirs, churned out like a machine mostly by frontman Rhett Miller, with some assists from bassist Murry Hammond. Here we get Miller singing about “mountains of weed” and “oceans of booze,” before The Replacements’ Tommy Stinson (who might be Miller’s mirror image from up north) shows up to help out with “Let’s Get Drunk and Get It On.” It’s all more fun than a bunch of guys north of 40 have a right to have.     — Sir Duke

 

TomPetty-HypnoticEye21. Tom Petty & the HeartbreakersHypnotic Eye
Almost unique among classic rock “legacy” artists, Tom Petty can still be relied upon — about 35 years into his career — to deliver a solid, listenable album from front to back. The guy just never throws up a clunker. But here, he’s gone one better, delivering his best album since 1999’s Echo. There’s not an “American Girl” or a “Breakdown” on here; just 11 meticulously written and produced rock songs that most bands would be happy to own. The power chords and high harmonies of songs like “American Dream Plan B” and “Forgotten Man” wouldn’t be out of place in Petty’s late 70s output, but the “haves vs. have-nots” themes keep things lyrically current. The standout here is “Red River,” a wistful bit of folk rock that calls back to Petty’s excellent 2008 album with Mudcrutch. Don’t ever leave us, Tom.    — Sir Duke

 

Opeth20. OpethPale Communion
Take away Opeth’s backstory, and this — a stunning artistic achievement — would be one of the most universally lauded albums of the year. That backstory, however, is that the Swedish collective — ruled by the creativity of Mikael Akerfeldt — spent its first 20-odd years as a death metal band. In 2010, after Akerfeldt had confessed to a soft spot for classic prog as well as the songcraft of bands like The Zombies—they abandoned the growled vocals and blast-beat drumming with Heritage, and played a set on tour that mostly abandoned their earlier metal material. On Pale Communion, they proved how serious they were about their new direction, coming up with challenging, shape-shifting music that’s equal to the best of King Crimson’s output. This is the pinnacle of modern prog-rock.     — Sir Duke

 

LydiaLoveless19. Lydia LovelessSomewhere Else
When you think about alt-country — which you often do — you rarely think of Matthew Sweet. But now, the chasm between power pop and Nashville has been bridged: the opening licks of Somewhere Else could easily be mistaken for something from Sweet’s classic album, Girlfriend. Lydia Loveless has crafted a wonderful crossover album that nods towards power pop with a Canadian roots-rock ethos that those south of the border may recognize from bands like the Drive-By Truckers. Sure, there are myriad countrified conventions, but never do they feel hackneyed or tired. Instead, the entire record pushes the listener forward in toe-tappin’ bliss; honest anguish and introspective analysis march towards cathartic release, song-by-song. Loveless is unafraid to discuss her intimate wants and needs, (“Head”), seizing the frontman mantra that has characterized rock since the days of Elvis Presley’s hip-shaking apostasy. Spatial moments seemingly reference the blissed-out Laurel Canyon/Fleetwood Mac era (“Somewhere Else”) and others enjoin the listener into her journey via vocals which consistently scale and descend the register with symbolic emotivity. Delivered straight-up and filled with universal themes, Loveless has delivered an album destined to stand the test of time.     — Behrnsie

 

Interpol-ElPintor18. InterpolEl Pintor
On El Pintor, Interpol’s fifth album, lead singer Paul Banks and company continue their exploration of dark, urban soulscapes, psychic alienation and relationship ennui. On the hook-laden “All the Rage Back Home,” the album’s debut single, the band has no problem returning to the driving, echoing signature sound of its early career masterworks, despite the fact that this is their first album without founding bassist Carlos Denger. Bathed in layers of swirling atmospherics, the songs on El Pintor boast piercing guitar hooks and lush 80s-style keyboard arrangements that lend a timelessness to the midnight longing of the lyrics. This album is a fitting continuation of Interpol’s shadowy oeuvre, demonstrating once again that the emptiness inside does not weigh us down; it is actually the reason we are light enough to soar.     — Erik Huey

 

CloudNothings-HereNowhereElse17. Cloud Nothings — Here & Nowhere Else
There seems to be a lot of great music coming out of Ohio these days. Cloud Nothings hail from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame city of Cleveland and belong high on any list of contemporary Buckeye State rock. Their fourth, album Here and Nowhere Else, is high-energy, fast-paced, punk-influenced fare that made many music fans’ and critics’ ears perk up early this year. A nice slot at Bonnaroo and many positive reviews should help to see their popularity rise on the heels of this KICK ASS effort. Drummer Jason Gerycz always keeps the groove pulsing forward in that Stewart Copeland sort of way, and plays all of those fills other drummers wish they could … at break-neck tempo, no less.     — Clem

 

StPaulBrokenBones-HalfTheCity16. St. Paul & the Broken BonesHalf The City
Another neo-soul outfit comprising a bunch of white dudes, you might ask. Really? Yes, really. And it’s f’ing exhilarating. Despite the Muscle Shoals–worthy band behind him, portly singer Paul Janeway leads the charge. Like many soul shouters, he grew up in the church, though here, on dance numbers like “Call Me” and on slow-burning heartwrenchers like “I’m Torn Up,” he sounds ready to shake the hymnals right off of the pews. Even though Allen Stone, Mayer Hawthorne and Alabama Shakes have worn this path well, the second coming of soul will stick around as long as it continues to bring material like this.     — Sir Duke

 

FutureIslands15. Future IslandsSingles
Where were you the night when Future Islands played Late Night with David Letterman? Because, that visceral performance changed everything. Not just for Future Islands, who blew up instantly thereafter (the Letterman clip alone has had 3 million views), but for our expectations about what a live television performance can achieve. No ornamentation, no lasers, no explosions; just a schlubby guy in a tight black t-shirt, dancing urgently, singing like his soul is at stake, pleading in a voice that roller-coasters between 80s smooth falsetto and death metal howl, and thumping his chest in a way that causes lumps in our own tightening torsos. It was, simply, the best performance we’d ever seen on Letterman, or any other show. And it was a gateway into the world of Future Islands: a pastiche of synthy hooks, driving bass and dance floor cymbal-heavy drumming that form a backdrop for Samuel T. Herring, possibly the most dynamic frontmen in indie rock. Like a blissful blend of Brit-synth bands from the 1980s (think the Blow Monkeys crossed with ABC and Ultravox), the power pop songs on the aptly titled Singles transport you back on a wave of nostalgia while propelling you upward to the top of the wall of sound.     — Erik Huey

 

SturgillSimpsonMeta13. Sturgill SimpsonMetamodern Sounds in Country Music
Kentucky’s Sturgill Simpson has crafted the finest pure country music album of the last ten years, maybe the last 20. With authentic Appalachian twang, this album tackles the usual country fare of drinking (“Life of Sin”), disappointment (“It Ain’t All Flowers”) and life on the road (“Long White Line”). But Simpson is at his best when he throws literate, post-modern curveballs at the country genre, especially on his heart-wrenching cover of “The Promise” by 80s one-hit wonders When in Rome, and when he tackles spiritual enlightenment in the superb, sublime single “Turtles All the Way Down,” where he ponders Jesus, the devil, Buddha and psychedelic experimentation. In a largely mindless “Bro Country” landscape populated by trucks, beer and “sugar-shakers,” Simpson’s is a welcome voice, reminiscent of (and worthy of) golden era Merle Haggard. And if you don’t like Merle Haggard, well, there’s nothing we can do to help you.     — Erik Huey

 

NikkieLaneAllOrNothin13. Nikki LaneAll or Nothin’
Ms. Nikki Lane’s All or Nothin’ provides hook-driven anthems of a distinctly Nashvillian ethos that cross over the railroad tracks with a shiny patina of melodic pop. Showing a distinct evolution from her under-appreciated debut record, Lane broadens her sonic landscapes while retaining her ability to titillate with frank talk. Her excursions outside of the traditional country paradigm add layered depth while remaining rooted in old school country traditions. Some tracks offer moments of tenderness (“You Can’t Talk To Me Like That”) and others exhibit moments of flippant compulsivity (“Sleep With a Stranger”). Others: the spiraling anxiety of “Seein’ Double” is a propellant journey summoning up the ghosts of film noir, while “Right Time” is a declarative statement about owning one’s actions, regardless of societal mores. Lane’s jocular and charismatic personality shines through as she openly embraces the entire axis of emotion with a verisimilitude mirroring life’s many winding turns. The result: one of 2014’s most arresting albums.     — Behrnsie

 

Hozier-Hozier12. HozierHozier
Over the decades, the isle of Ireland has produced no shortage of blue-eyed soul devotees and progenitors, from “Yer Man Van” Morrison to Rattle & Hum-era U2 to The Commitments. But nothing that came before could have set the stage for the pop cultural explosion that is Andrew Hozier-Byrne from County Wicklow — a.k.a. Hozier. With 123 million Spotify plays and 55 million YouTube views for his mega-hit “Take Me to Church,” Hozier burst into 2014’s pop consciousness with Beatles-like intensity. The stark, graphic “Church” video, featuring footage from Russian anti-gay rallies interpolated with black-and white imagery of right wing violence against a young gay couple, embodied a budding generation’s rejection of the moral and religious strictures of its forebears. The rest of his eponymous debut album follows suit, as on “Foreigner’s God,” where he exclaims “My heart is heavy with the hate of some other man’s belief.” His vocalizes a spiritual quest, gliding effortlessly from deep, soulful crooning (“The Angel of Small Death and the Codeine Scene”) to high, soaring explorations of the upper register (“From Eden”). And, of course, he’s good looking to boot. Let the haters hate. We would hate him too if he wasn’t, um… So. Goddamn. Good.     — Erik Huey

 

altJ-ThisIsAllYours11. alt-JThis Is All Yours
They’ve been labeled a fad, a flash in the pan and a one-time oddity but  this sophomore effort should put those digs to rest. That said, alt-J will not be everyone’s cup of Earl Grey, but they have proven that their unique and enigmatic style can be reproduced and possibly even improved. Much like Family Guy, you either get alt-J … or you don’t. But after winning the coveted British Mercury Prize for their debut An Awesome Wave and conquering America with multiple tours and festival appearances, many American music fans wanted more of what their initial effort gave us: a mash of medieval/Gregorian chant, modern electronics and a sparse 20th century classical compositional style. TRIVIA: Drummer Thom Green doesn’t like the sound of cymbals, therefore you will not hear ANY on any song…just another Shrek-like layer that makes alt-J wonderfully compelling and perplexing.     — Clem

 

BrokenBells-After_The_Disco10. Broken BellsAfter the Disco
The Black Keys didn’t make our list this year. But Dan Auerbach did, as producer of Nikki Lane’s All or Nothin’. As did Auerbach’s longtime producer, Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton, with this release. In fact, you might even say that the Akron duo’s sound makes an appearance here, as Burton, along with bandmate James Mercer of The Shins, puts forth much of the same blues-meets-soul-meets-psychedelia-meets-disco sonic template that Burton has perfected in his three discs with the Black Keys. The songs here are a bit tighter and more assertive than on Broken Bells’ debut, and the thematic cohesiveness is stronger, too. The standout lead single “Holding on for Life” evokes The Bee Gees in a pot haze, and the rest of the album proceeds accordingly. This is cynical, world-weary stuff, akin to something the Studio 54 crowd might have listened to during their 5am comedown.     — Sir Duke

 

Phantogram-Voices9. Phantogram Voices
On their second full-length album and major label debut, Phantogram has found a higher level of songwriting sophistication, employing electronic swells, hip-hop infused rhythms and a heavy dose of descending melodies, for a blend that’s much denser and complicated than their debut. “Black Out Days” mesmerizes with its dark sensibility and seductive vocals and serves as an excellent example of Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter’s developed confidence. With producer John Hill (M.I.A./Santigold), the band has a more congealed style and a sense of swagger — at times evoking 90’s electronica like Curve and Portishead. “Never Going Home” is another display of Barthel’s amped-up vocals leaving an aftertaste of turmoil. Their slick compositions and electrifying performances have earned them crossover buzz, and to their credit, there’s plenty of substance to justify the hype.      — Ferrise

 

RealEstate-Atlas8. Real Estate Atlas
Jangle enthusiasts had something to celebrate in 2014 with the release of Real Estate’s eternally pleasant “Atlas.” For their third album, the New Jersey five-piece enlisted the help of producer Tom Schick, known for engineering Paul McCartney and Sonic Youth. Martin Courtney (singer and guitarist) and guitarist Matt Mondanile’s clean guitar interplay is beautiful, and at times a little reminiscent of The Meat Puppets circa Up on the Sun or Kurt Vile’s Wakin’ on a Pretty Daze. In particular, “Had to Hear” and “Talking Backwards” showcase their coherent, well-crafted, atmospheric approach.     — Ferrise

 

JackWhite-Lazaretto7. Jack White Lazaretto
About ten years ago, some of my knowledgeable music friends and I were discussing/debating what influence Jack White would have on the music world and guitar playing. While that musical history is still being written, one cannot deny Mr. White’s consistently solid output, whether with The White Stripes, The Dead Weather or The Raconteurs. Now comes Lazaretto, White’s second solo album, and it’s more of the same in an oh-so-good way. Rock is on the menu in Jack’s joint, but with complexity and maturity that seemingly only get better with time. White’s jagged, frenetic, blues-influenced guitar style and his over the top, energetic voice are on fine display. And, in the spirit of Miles Davis and Steely Dan, White gets that his music will be made better by assembling a great backing band of artists that all contribute to a fantastic whole (special shout out to the dynamic Daru Jones on drums). What fun it’s going to be to see where he goes next if Lazaretto is any indication of White’s uncharted direction.     — Clem

 

RoyalBlood6. Royal BloodRoyal Blood
Royal Blood rocks the #&$# out. This is good ol’ 70s/80s riff rock like Zeppelin and Sabbath combined with the modern rock sounds and energy of QOTSA and The Black Keys. Simply: it rocks, and it rocks hard. While playing as a duo has SOME limitations, these are not immediately evident live or on record. The electronics used to create these sounds are not new technology but they provide (without running sequences or tracks) for a sonic landscape that would suggest more than two shredders in Royal Blood. Their impact will remain to be seen as hard rock continues to struggle to find footing in the age of EDM, lo-fi indie, retro-new wave and Americana. But if unadulterated, old-school, kick-you-in-the-ass rock is your thing — either because you lived thru the 70s and 80s or because someone schooled you in the essentials of the past — Royal Blood’s debut should give you a certain comfortable sonic warm feeling … maybe similar to donning that old Rush jersey you bought on the Moving Pictures tour.     — Clem

 

ExHexRips5. Ex-HexRips
Despite an undeniable legacy, there hasn’t been a lot of laudable, native-grown rock emanating from our nation’s capital in recent years. Part of that may have been because Mary Timony had decamped to play with Portland’s Wild Flag. Long one of D.C.’s most eminent rock musicians, her prior work (see: Helium) remains quite influential amongst indie artists. Add a set of well-practiced D.C. indie rock scenesters (Betsy Wright, Laura Harris), foot-stompin’, melodic songwriting and a healthy dollop of unbridled enthusiasm and you’ve got yourselves a barn-burnin’ rock and roll band. Their debut album does exactly what its title portends: it RIPS. Their estimable live performances do the same, captivating crowds from arrival to departure, their sincerely enraptured audience marked by a distinct lack of the diversionary activities plaguing shows these days. Rips is a solid excursion of an endeavor that stands up as a single document, and that in and of itself is a throwback to conceptual indie musicians that knew not to stuff albums with filler, lest they take their audience for granted. Perhaps that’s the best thing about it: it never insults your intelligence, even during moments when it’s simply good old fashioned rock and roll.     — Behrnsie

 

BeckMorningPhase

4. BeckMorning Phase
Morning Phase is Beck’s 12th studio album and his first since 2008 after the well-known musician took time to produce albums from a wide variety of artists. It also might very well be his best album ever, especially for those who are fans of the melancholy themes found on 2002’s Sea Change. Acoustic guitars, pedal steel, lush string arrangements, soft piano lines and introspective lyrics are drenched in a reverb wash to create a beautiful and heartbreaking journey. Beck’s dad helped create the orchestral interludes in between tracks, adding another layer of trippiness and emotion to the project. “My Heart Is a Drum” is a burst of warmth in this satisfyingly moody triumph.      — Ferrise

 

AgainstMeTransgender3. Against Me!Transgender Dysphoria Blues
When Against Me! founder and lead singer Tommy Gabel announced in 2012 that he was undergoing a gender transformation into a woman named Laura Jane Grace, fans wondered if/how the punk band from Gainesville, FL, band could continue. With Transgender Dysphoria Blues, the band’s triumphant, fist-pumping rallying cry (and the best album of their career), Grace and company answer with a resounding, redemptive kick against the pricks. Rather than ducking the gender issue, the album confronts and chronicles the ongoing transition with honesty, vulnerability and fist-pumping fury. The melodies are raw, sweet and utterly infectious, and half of this album could be in the band’s (or any band’s) Greatest Hits collection. In songs like “True Trans Soul Rebel,” “Fuckmylife666” and the title track, Grace declares, “there’s a brave new world raging inside of me” but worries that with “no hips to shake,” “they just see a faggot” even though “you want them to see you like they see any other girl.” The album closes on a rebellious note with stage-diving anthem “Black Me Out,” on which Grace chants to the doubters “I want to piss on the walls of your house!” before proudly declaring “I don’t want to feel that weak and insecure…anymore.”   — Erik Huey

 

Spoon-TheyWantMySoul2. SpoonThey Want My Soul
Before Christmas, my sister took my 8-year old nephew to his first ever rock concert, one of those commercial radio station Christmas shows this one called “Not So Silent Night” at the Oakland Arena. The show was an interesting line-up of Cage the Elephant, Spoon, Interpol, alt-J and  Imagine Dragons (imagine that). They missed the first two acts but arrived in time to see Spoon. As my sister describes it, the lights went down, the music started and my nephew began to grin from ear to ear. His head was bobbin’ and his feet were movin’ the whole time. That’s how I feel when I hear the first release in four years from Austin indie royalty: the childlike grin of experiencing something magical for the first time, every time. Britt Daniel‘s raspy voice and wry delivery remains the embodiment of indie rock bliss, and They Want My Soul is literate, booming rock album that lingers long after you’ve stopped listening.     — Greg Bacchetti

 

WarOnDrugs1. The War on DrugsLost in the Dream
The War on Drugs’ fourth studio effort is an achievement on several levels, but perhaps on no level more than this: Almost unique in the fractured scene of contemporary music, Adam Granduciel and company have managed to craft an album that seems to transcend genre and taste. You like melodic hooks and soaring classic rock crescendos? You got ‘em. You have a soft spot for 80s New Wave synths? Check. You like scene-setting atmospherics and soundscapes? You got that, too. But to characterize this release as just a mélange of influences — Petty, Dylan and The Cure have been referenced by more than one critic — is to do it an injustice. Like all great art, it managed to take the past and build on it, in an occasionally bleak but ultimately uplifting way. Lost in the Dream is an album that should endure for decades.     — Sir Duke

 

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