The best albums (I heard) in 2014

Jared Hemming

 


Award season is upon us, and with 2015 (and its Grammy awards ceremony) approaching, I thought I’d do something different to eschew the endless internet sea of 2014’s best albums retrospectives.

With that in mind, here’s a list of the greatest albums that I first heard in 2014.

  1. “Donuts”- J Dilla

This masterful work by the LA-via-Detroit producer was recorded and released in the weeks preceding Dilla’s premature 2006 death of a rare blood disease at age 32. “Donuts” is a beautiful requiem for the beats master, and the flow of Dilla’s 31-track instrumental hip-hop sprawl never lingers too long on a single idea, making it the perfect record for anyone looking to chill out with some interesting sample work.

 

  1. “It’s True”- Hollow Boys

After a few years gigging around the Twin Cities and touring, the Hollow Boys released their debut album, the gloom/pop “It’s True,” in June 2013. While performances on Radio K and elsewhere showcased the band’s newfound shimmer, I was admittedly disappointed by the band’s abandonment of the raw guitar sludge on their 2012 EP, “When You Think of Us, Pray For Us.” On “It’s True,” Hollow Boys cemented their sound’s polished throwback to ‘80s touchstones like The Smiths and The Jesus & Mary Chain. With their latest release, 2014’s “Believe In Nothing,” Hollow Boys proved their faded guitar wash trend will continue.

 

  1. “Run The Jewels 2”- Run The Jewels

El-P and Killer Mike — the rapper producer combo that make Run The Jewels — returned in 2014 for with raucous follow-up to their eponymous debut, a little over a year after it’s release. Considering a national trend of deadly racial tension among police and citizens, the black-and-white duo struck a balance between socially-conscious pleas for change and overt sexual innuendo, sometimes even on the same song, as is the case for “Close Your Eyes (And Count to F*ck)” featuring a never-better Zach de la Rocha emerging from his Rage Against the Machine-royalties cove to provide a guest verse and a hook that essentially becomes Run The Jewels’ theme song.

 

  1. “Rumble! The Best of Link Wray”- Link Wray

This late-’50s guitar wonder pioneered the power chord, and Wray’s electrified, raw tunes paved the way for countless feedback-and-fuzz laden guitarists for years to come. You can hear Wray’s influence as an early rock’n’roller on hugely successful bands like the Ramones and even smaller acts, like Minneapolis rockers The Sex Rays (who said their name is one part Sex Pistols, one part Link Wray).

 

  1. “trIllIun”- Fort Wilson Riot

For this year’s “trIllIun” (pronounced “trillion”), Minneapolis duo Fort Wilson Riot went all-out pop with 10 tracks bouncing between disco-tinged synthpop grooves and reverb-drenched shine. FWR’s Amy Hagar and Jacob Mullis kept it light with the Age of Aquarius-y video for “Yes Indeed,” and tunes like “Drift” bubble up to surface of some fantasy Twin Cities ocean like flowy seaweed for a forgotten track by “Sunflower”-era Beach Boys.

 

  1. “Marquee Moon”- Television

Though this classic by punk pioneers Television came out way back in 1977, I didn’t discover the band until after reading Patti Smith’s elegy to the artist Robert Mapplethorpe in her autobiography “Just Kids.” Like Smith, Television emerged from the American wave of punk rock in the late-70s; however, the four-piece’s musical chops (led by Tom Verlaine’s melodic lead guitar) transcended their contemporaries in the New York punk scene with their careful and meandering song craft and occasionally epic lyrical concepts about New York’s Bowery district and the (nonexistent) arms of the Venus de Milo statue. On the title track of “Marquee Moon,” Television’s ten-minute sojourn through cadillac-infested graveyards and watery guitar solo twang influenced the minds of countless artists throughout contemporary indie rock, including the Pixies, The National and Wilco.

 

  1. “Halcyon Digest”- Deerhunter

On 2013’s “Halcyon Digest,” Deerhunter perfected the divide between the experimental krautrock jams and the ultra-focused space-rock of their previous releases. This sharp compositional eye peaks with the “Halcyon” track “Helicopter,” a dub, baroque-esque lament which sees Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox grieving from a character’s perspective of their “final days in company.” Live, the band flipped the song’s shimmer on its head for a washed out groove, while still maintaining its lyrical reflection on what it’s like to be lonely, especially when you’re surrounded by strangers.

 

  1. “Light Up Gold”- Parquet Courts

With their 2012 debut, Parquet Courts filled every indie rock fan’s void for a punk band with simple, choogling tunes and a heart that belongs to Stephen Malkmus. Forgoing Pavement’s classic rock hooks, however, Parquet Courts shot from the hip with the frenetic bursts of rhythmic energy on songs like “Master of My Craft” and “Yr No Stoner.” While the Lou Reed-esque “Stoned and Starving” became a minor hit for the band, tunes like “Borrowed Time” and “N Dakota” showcase singer Andrew Savage’s lyrical genius, especially when he describes how “anti-meth murals color the ghettos of N. Dakota.”

 

  1. “Salad Days”- Mac DeMarco

Upon discovering DeMarco in Pitchfork’s “Pepperoni Playboy: a Macumentary,” I was confounded by DeMarco’s impish and prankster image and its contrast with his heartfelt, sun-baked tunes. While the music press loves reporting on DeMarco’s goofball antics, it’s DeMarco’s wistfulness — especially on the title track — as well as his charming, demo-ish musicianship on “Salad Days” that warrants a repeated listen. The 24-year-old Brooklynite-by-way-of-Montreal musician records all of the parts on his albums himself (like a slacker Tame Impala), and his decidedly un-virtuosic tones should not be mistaken for a lack of craft. Throughout “Salad Days,” DeMarco updates the standard verse-chorus-verse structure with soulful advice tips on love and mature statements on the grief of getting older, all backed by glimmering guitar licks and thumping, solid drums. Though “Salad Days” is a serious artistic effort, DeMarco has kept his persona lighthearted, especially with the woozy, slowed-down video for “Chamber of Reflection” and a one-off sketch in which DeMarco plays a professional car backer. Love or leave him, the mischievous DeMarco is making music all his own, manipulating the music press and laughing at his own image along the way.

 

  1. “St. Vincent”- St. Vincent

While detractors might hold that St. Vincent’s Annie Clark sold out on her eponymous, pop-tinged major label debut, it’s clear on “St. Vincent” that the virtuosic singer/guitarist Clark brought mainstream rock sounds into her hauntingly weird musical home. Songs like “Birth In Reverse” display the tight, angular melodic work that Clark picked up from her former collaborator, Talking Heads leader David Byrne. On “Regret,” however, Clark synthesizes St. Vincent’s key characteristics — soaring, siren-like melodies, biting keyboard squeals and crunching guitar riffs — into a sound completely her own. Live, the album’s examination on the concept of control shine through in Clark’s intentionally bizarre and robot-like dance coordinations, if you can call them that. For performances on Saturday Night Live and the Pitchfork Music Festival, Clark eschewed her usual unleashed stage antics for these jarring dance moves, including instances where she and her guitarist tiptoe in tandem across the stage. While themes of reality and plasticity clash on “Bring Me Your Loves” and “Digital Witness,” Clark creates St. Vincent’s most complete album yet.