Music

​Top Ten Albums of 2014

​Steven Casimer Kowalski and Neal Christyson
Hey, everyone! So, last year Neal and I put together our list of the Top Ten Albums of 2013 for AltOhio and they’ve been kind enough to invite us back for another round. This time, it’s all positivity. There aren’t any dishonorable mentions because, for real, this year was tough enough. Second, while we all know that D’Angelo album is great, it isn’t here because it just arrived too late. But make sure you listen to it. We believe it is important.

And just so you know we are good at this, last year, Neal was perceptive enough to select Disclosure’s Settle as top-5 record of 2013. And in that write-up we shared this little idea; “Let’s give some love to Sam Smith who hit the vocal on that track”. This was a reference to Disclosure’s song “Latch” which is, honestly, still the jam. And on which Sam Smith kills it. Admit it, you didn’t know who that dude was one year ago. Well, we did. We talked about him in 2013 and he blew the doors off 2014. So yeah, maybe pay attention to AltOhio because we’re a few steps ahead over here. Or...we got lucky! SPOTIFY PLAYLIST.

10. Herzog - Boys

Steve: Well, you’ll have a harder time finding a record that fits me better than one by a bunch of dudes from the near west side of Cleveland who play fuzzed-out indie rock about Satan, Black Sabbath, and the middle class. So, for sound and subject alone, Boys makes my best of the year list. It is a brash, big-sounding record about the sum of many small things. Stuff like playing in a marching band and going to shows. Again, all stuff I can relate to. It also helps that I am a boy. So, this is where I take some license to say that, yeah, this is my list and if I find that album that hits me just right I’m dropping it right here. You’ll like it too, though. Because it has great songs. Not sure you’ll love it, though. Don’t care much neither. This is my #10.

Neal: We have had conversations about this year’s list being the best one we’ve ever done. There is something about these albums collectively which is pretty wonderful. That aspect is the way they grabbed me and this Herzog album represents that best. Boys is full of an exuberance, which reminds me why I started falling in love with bands and albums and songs in the first place. It’s loud, fast, and fun. It sounds like X’s on hands while underage at concerts. It feels like cheap drinks and long nights at bars with friends. This album makes me smile. It reminds me of that excitement of discovering a new band and you just want to tell everyone about it. So here we are.

9. TV on the Radio - Seeds

Neal: A lot of talk on this album centers on it being the first since the death of their original bass player. Rightfully so, there are a lot of songs about friendship and loss. Since the days of ...Cookie Mountain, TV On The Radio’s sound may have softened. There may be more and more ballads on each subsequent album, but songs like “Happy Idiot”, “Lazerray”, and “Careful You” prove their teeth are as sharp as ever. Also, they have proven an ability to make compelling and interesting ballads over and over again. It doesn’t hurt that in singer Tunde Adebimpe they have one of the absolute best voices in the game. This is a band I just absolutely love, and always will. Nine Types of Life didn’t make my top ten in 2011 because there were other albums I loved more. Wonderfully, Seeds is just that little bit better and more than earns its spot on this list. I hope TV On The Radio releases a new album every 3 years for the rest of my life.

Steve: Ninth on this list is the perfect place for this TV On The Radio album. But it seems way too low for a band that good. I worry if maybe they’re somehow overlooked in some important way. I know, how can a band that big, with a singer who gets in movies, be overlooked? I just mean that maybe something essential about this band still hasn’t found the context it needs in a broader sense. I know this is true for me. I come back to all of their albums over and over and never find that thing that locks the band in for me. Right now, my favorite jam by them is still “Staring at the Sun”. That song is 100 years old. And since that track nothing they’ve released has really shown as bright. But maybe, just maybe, “Test Pilots” is a new number one. I have played this track over and over. It is a stunning piece of music. Dazed pop that feels organic and honest and a bit sad. A true gem of this year.

8. S - Cool Choices

Steve: This year saw a few really great debates regarding the use of music streaming services and how the artists who make the content those services stream get compensated for the work they provide. T. Swizzle pulled her stuff. Spotify spoke out. I hope 2015 sees this debate continue, even grow. I get most of my music streamed and, as that kind of consumer, I would prefer a model where artists are getting money for those streams. And if streaming slows or artists continue to follow T. Swizz...I’ll have less to listen to, and that will prevent me from discovering incredible records like Cool Choices by S. I never would have heard about this record without online streaming. Stylistically, this record is all over the place. And each iteration S throws out is near perfect. “Vampires”, the song that hooked me, is shimmery indie rock while “Tell Me” is sparse electro and “Remember Love” is a piano ballad. I’m old enough to be tired of love songs, but they are done real right on Cool Choices. It is my sleeper-hit of 2014.

Neal: This was the token album on your list that was completely new to me when you told me you picked it. Boy, was I pleasantly surprised. I want to see S play on a bill with bands like Ida and Hey Mercedes. I want to be 17, sweaty, and singing along and feeling every last word of this whole album. The songs on this album are so well done that they cut through any age and jaded nature that may be in you. It’s just so straightforward and so good. “Like Gangbusters!” is the song which first drew me in and continues to be a definite stand out for me. Her voice, and the guitar tone, and just everything fits so well together. The whole thing is fantastic and I owe it all to this list, much like you will when you are done reading this.

7. Perfume Genius - Too Bright

Neal: I just want to take a moment at the top to draw attention to how good of a name Perfume Genius is. Definitely a nom de tune worthy of being in the category with some of the all time best. I was listening to this album when my girlfriend came home and quizzically asked, “What the hell are you listening to?” because she came in at a weird moment; one of the sparse, dreamy, moments, which are plentiful on this album. But here’s the thing. It’s beautiful. It’s R&B with odd, sparse, bouncy music in the background? I’m not sure. I should be better at describing this because I think that’s what I’m supposed to be doing right now. I’m sorry. Suffice it to say, there is a song driven entirely by echoed handclaps, there is some Wall Of Sound in there, an incredibly powerful voice, and just damn good tunes. Also, the man is taking shots at Eminem and declaring “pretty sure I could destroy him with just a look, someone put us in a room together and watch Eminem slowly wither from my witch glance.” And while I didn’t know people still cared about Eminem one way or the other, I’m always going to side with the guy named Perfume Genius. Get on board people, he’s poised to take over the world.

Steve: Dude, have you seen that Eminem Shirt he was touring with? Have you seen the video for Queen? Mike Hardeas is out for blood. And I like that. I like that “Queen” is aggressive and loud. I like that he is taking shots at people. He knows he made a rad record. He knows he has the talent to back this stuff up. And I hope 2015 sees his share of the pop music pie grow and grow...because the man is earning it. One thing I really hope for is that he goes more mainstream. I know, that’s a horrible thing to say, but can you even imagine what he’s capable of with a pop producer and a massive PR team behind him? It wouldn’t phase him. Watch the dude on Letterman. The guy is ready. Someone get him working with Ariel Rechtshaid or Pharrell. Perfume Genius is gonna put lipstick on the world.

​6. Protomartyr - Under Color of Official Right

Steve: A chilling, drunken, Bad Seeds kind of rock record. This is one of those albums that leaps out so quickly and with such force that, like, 6 songs in you’re wondering what this band is going to do with their next album. Where do you go from this place? Go listen to this, even if it doesn’t sound like your particular cup of tea. Originally, that S record was going to be at number 6, but PM got a bump because, no bullshit, they absolutely RIP live. I caught them over the summer and the singer looked like a such a mess I was worried for his well being. So, if that’s an act, it is a great one. And if it’s for real, he’s working some stuff out and I hope he finds a bit of help now and then. Drive hours to see this band if you have the chance. Worth it.

Neal: This band is big. I mean BIG big. The sound, the voice, yes. I was very happy to see you picked this because it meant I got to slot in another album on my end. I don’t really know if I can speak about this album any better than you did. The lead singer has a voice which to me, sounds so much like someone else and I can’t for the life of me figure it out. If anyone knows who it is, tweet at Steve (@casimerkowalski) and let him know. He will pass on any relevant information to me. I need to figure this out.

5. Real Estate - Atlas

Neal: Real Estate’s album Days would have made it into my list for 2011 if only I had heard it before 2012. But I didn’t, and I’ve been waiting for them to release another album eagerly so I could tell you all to listen to it. Thankfully they more than delivered this year with Atlas. It’s breezy, jangly, a little sarcastic, and just a wonderful album perfect for summertime, backyards, long car rides, and cold trips home from work. It may not be an album that jumps down your throat like others on this list, but it will stick with you. You will find yourself turning to it more and more, and then there is nothing else you can do. Atlas is a part of you, and you’re better off for it.

Steve: Neal, this pretty much sums up my take on this album: “...summertime, backyards, long car rides, and cold trips home from work.”  I have this theory about so-called “Yacht Rock” bands from the 70s and early 80s. It’s that songs like “Horse with No Name” by America or “Brandy” by Looking Glass are deeply disturbed pieces of music. Those bands produced this unbelievably flat, relaxed sound. I think to most people it has a real chill vibe. Like these dudes ain’t got a care in the world. But for me, all I can hear is a crushing sadness and emptiness. All humanity has been removed. It is a void. Those 70s soft-rock songs are the saddest, most psychotic pieces of music in the world. I love them. Real Estate needs to be careful because they are flirting with that sound. And, occasionally, this record gets real melancholy. Thankfully, this band has a sense of humor, they have chops, and they maybe haven’t done enough cocaine to get real inside their own twisted, flat dreams. HAVE FUN, EVERYONE.

4. Literature - Chorus

​Steve: I read that really great Tony Fletcher book about The Smiths this year. I don’t normally go for rock bio’s because, most times, the person writing the book is a fan. A big fan. And they gush. And it’s gross. It’s like, “C’mon, dude, Led Zep were a good band but tone it down.” Thankfully, Tony kept it pretty even for his Smiths story. And Smiths drama is fun and it’s look “Ooooo Moz DRAMA.” But the real fun were all these bands orbiting The Smiths and making great records that I got to go find. Literature wasn’t one of those bands, but they should have been. And Chorus could, on a good day, gives Strangeways… a real fucking run for its money. If you’ve been dying for an update on Felt or James or The Housemartins get this immediately. It is exactly what you’re looking for. If you’ve no idea what I’m talking about and couldn’t give a shit about The Smiths, well, you have a really dense, gorgeous rock record to check out. So do that...check it out.

Neal: In my head this band has 14 members, and 11 of them play guitar. On any given song, at any given moment, I really can’t figure out how many guitars are playing. Most of the time is sounds like at least 7. The layers and textures of this album are quite astounding. You are definitely spot on with your Smiths periphery mention. I also hear a lot of influence from bands like The Jam and Pulp in what Literature are doing. And if you mention that a band sounds like The Jam, Pulp, and The Smiths-adjacent, then I’m likely to be on board. And I would be willing to bet I am far from the only one. So to those of you, and everyone else as well, get on board.

3. ​Sylvan Esso - Sylvan Esso

Neal: Do yourself a favor and turn on the opening track from this album right now. It’s called “Hey Mami”. OK, we ready? Simple start, another chamber pop album, right? Sounds pretty enough. Slight hand claps, vague street sounds in the back. Here we are at 1:25 in and there are bells and then holy shit where did that come from? I don’t know either, but it’s totally awesome. And here we have Sylvan Esso. A beautiful voice, beautiful songs, sounds, and also an electronic album which presented one of the most guttural reactions to music I’ve had in a long time. Such is my relationship to this album. Discovered via the All Songs Considered podcast and enjoyed on many a morning commute. Listen to this album, (or at least just the song “Could I Be”) LOUDLY, while on your way to work. It will make your day great. That’s the best bit of advice you’ll likely got all year, whether you know it or not.

Steve: That is really good advice. More people need to take your advice. Speaking of uplifting, positive stuff, in addition to this album...I think it’s good that we didn’t reprise our “Dishonorable Mentions” from last year. Yeah, sure, we could have made that list in 2 seconds. We could have been haters. I know for sure I am a hater. And haters gonna hate. But this year we are only appreciating, we are only saying “GOOD JOB, YOU ALL”.  2014 was a difficult, troubling year and I am really proud to be straight-up appreciating great work like this with a great friend like you. My jam here is “Coffee”. My sister clued me into it months ago and the shit is hypnotically fun. Also, who saw this record coming? Not me. I love that.

2. ​Angel Olsen - Burn Your Fire For No Witness

Steve: I totally whiffed on this record when it dropped in February. Wait, no, whiffed makes it sound like I tried to get into it and didn’t when the reality was I just ignored it entirely. Lately, this is a theme with me. Shit, y’all, so wrong to do that. Just unbelievably wrong. This is a statement album. It’s aimed right at the hearts and minds of cynical jerkoffs like me to get us to collectively shut the fuck up and enjoy something for once. As an experiment, get your best stereo (mine is in my car), crank the bass way up and leave the treble where you prefer. Then play “Dance Slow Decades” and wait for the song to hit 1:22. It was that exact second that brought this whole record into focus for me. That rumbling bass and huge vocal legitimately helped me remember why I spend free time digging for new music and writing about it. Because once a year, maybe twice, you get that moment. It is true surprise. And it’s the highlight of the year. Or, at least a Top Ten moment.

Neal: I had a similar experience with this album initially. When the label “singer-songwriter” gets thrown around I tend to just assume it will be boring. No matter how good the songs are there is an element of that style which more often than not bores me. Definitely not the case with Angel Olsen. The album is big and fuzzy and the songs are so damn good. There is an element of Patsy Cline in a leather jacket that just works so well. Also, definitely worth taking the moment to give a little doff of the cap to producer John Congleton. He had his hands in this album, St. Vincent, Swans, Cloud Nothings, Xiu Xiu, and Empires among others. So talk about a guy who had a lot to do with the sound of 2014.

1. St. Vincent - St. Vincent

Neal: When I was in college there was always That Girl; the one in class or at a party who stood out just by the virtue of being the weirdest and most artsy person in the room. She was usually spouting off the most wonderful nonsense. I have fallen in love with Annie Clark the same way a younger me always fell for That Girl. It is the same way an even younger me fell in love with people like Ian Curtis, Jarvis Cocker, and Robert Smith. I just feel compelled to pay attention to anything she does. And I have, and I will continue to do so. I had the fortune of seeing her live and her performance is strange, loud, and wonderful. Definitely something not to be missed. From simple and beautiful pop songs, to straight-up distorted shredding, and even including the weird art school girl monologues, it all comes together so exquisitely well. Just like the album, the loud bangers hook you in but songs like “Prince Johnny” are the ones which you really stick around for and hum for days afterwards. There is just something about a personality and an album which grabs you in the way music grabbed you during formative years. This one did that to me and was so very easy to select it as the best of the year, because it just is. It really is that wonderfully simple.

Steve: True confession time: until 2014, I really didn’t dig St. Vincent at all. I am a foolish, foolish man with absolutely zero taste. And yet, I allowed to write these Best Of lists year after year. Thanks, AMERICA! Is it obvious I don’t know what I am talking about? If not, good, I don’t want anyone to know just yet. But maybe, just maybe, doing this over and over again is aiding my senses a bit because, finally,I am catching up to Annie Clark. I agree, this was an easy #1 pick. This is an almost perfect record. It’s a rare thing for me to feel that strongly about an album. I am so quick to dismiss and parse and pay attention to singles. It is shameful. But I’ve played this one so many times. I’ve listened to it in a way that reminds me of how I would obsess over albums in my teens. This record is so good I am legit proud it is on here at #1. Like, I feel like we got this pick exactly right. Please, go buy this album and just have it on all the time. You might go years before another piece of music this excellent comes round.