This is a post I do every year, and it’s getting more difficult.
Here’s last year’s list.
If you like indie music, hip hop or punk music, there are some great albums on those links. I look back at those lists and there are some extreme amounts of good albums. The reason this list is getting harder is that when I first started writing, I hadn’t accessed a lot of these bands and their catalogs. So Neutral Milk Hotel was a revelation, as were many other bands. Picking the best albums was hard, because there were tens of potential inclusions.
Today, I’m mostly listening to a lot of the same bands, but far fewer albums because I’ve listend to so much of their back catalogs. There is still some fantastic stuff, but the quality level may be a notch or two lower. Regardless, I think we can get ten albums worth listening to:
#10: The New Pornographers – Brill Bruisers (2014)
I own three NP albums and this is as good as any of them. What’s fantastic about this band is the mesh of styles from AC Newman, Dan Bejar and Neko Case. They are light, enjoyable songs that catch you unaware as they have different singers, beats, and tempo. Neko is one of my favorite artists all time and she as usual shines. Try “War on the East Coast” to get started.
#9: Hail Mary Mallon – Bestiary (2014)
Second album from Aesop Rock and Rob Sonic. Overall I’d say this is about the same quality as the first, with some terrific songs earlier on in the album. It doesn’t stand up to Aesop’s solo stuff, but not much does IMO. Very good hip hop album if you like dense word play and heavier beats.
#8: Sufjan Stevens – Michigan (2003)
Sufjan Stevens has been making music for a long time now. I’d heard about him in undergrad, when Illinoise! was getting heavy college rotations. I picked up Seven Swans a few years back, but it never really resonated with me due to being a lighter/slower style. There was a period when music like that and Iron & Wine were getting play, but they never really broke into any of my favorites lists.
Michigan is a VERY good album, starting off with Flint–which is perhaps my favorite song of the year. Many people call Sufjan a genius; this album makes me see why they say it. He is unafraid to try things musically and this album shows it. I actually purchased Illinoise! after this and think it is not quite as good despite getting more attention historically. Michigan consistently references the state–where Sufjan was born (Detroit) and catalogs some of the great things to celebrate and the sadder aspects of life there. If you’ve never listened to him, this is where you should start.
#7: Atmosphere – Southsiders (2014)
A hometown favorite, Slug and Ant have been making great tunes since the late 90s. In terms of hip hop, there’s not a lot of better stuff out there. It’s kind of odd because when I think of great Atmosphere albums, When Life Gives You Lemons jumps out as the absolute best, but Lucy Ford and You Can’t Imagine How Much Fun We’re Having are also fantastic. Overcast is lyrically as good as any of them, but not as good on production. God Loves Ugly was the album that hooked me. Headshots stuff was always great.
There are SO many good songs in the history of Atmosphere. Scapegoat, Gods Bathroom Floor, Woman with the Tattooed Hands, Yesterday, etc. etc. The list is LONG. Nowadays I don’t really play the old albums, but I smile thinking about how temporal and relevant each album was at the time of release. It was pushing indie hip hop forward and Slug will go down as one of the best underground hip hop artists of all time. There’s no HOF for this thing, but it’s a movement.
Southsiders is more of the same — lots of good tracks with a similar flow from Sluggo, and Ant is still on point. I don’t think they are pushing the envelope in terms of what they are willing to experiment with, but at the end of the day they are still making great albums. Definitely worth picking up. ”Arthur’s Song” is a favorite.
#6: Spoon – They Want My Soul (2014)
Spoon is back with another very solid album. These guys are interesting as they keep putting out good albums that sound similar….yet slight different. I did not care for Transference as much as Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga (their best album IMO, where you should start) and this is somewhere in between these two. Spoon played Rock the Garden this last year, and crushed it! Wonderful performance from an excellent band.
#5: NOFX – Stoke Extinguisher (2013)
All time favorite punk band. Still putting out lots of funny, irreverent and interesting work. This was a fast, fun EP that caught my attention for the first track which hits hard. The second track is an homage to recently deceased Tony Sly from No Use For a Name–with Fatty doing a spot on impersonation at the end. The other songs are catchy and fast–riffing on old age and other topics they’ve continued to address over time. Well worth the $$ if you like the genre at all.
#4: Oasis – What’s the Story Morning Glory (1995)
I missed a lot of good music in the 90’s. That time period was mostly skate punk and a mish mash of various stuff like Smashing Pumpkins, Metallica, Bush and REM. I was not listening to rock music and didn’t really know that there was much happening. Turns out there were quite a few good albums then, which I’m just now getting to.
This was a really good offering. Front to back, songs are well put together musically interesting and valuable as a cohesive unit. If you enjoy rock and haven’t gotten into this, it’s well worth it.
#3: Pavement – Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (1994)
This is where the list gets very difficult. Any of these albums could be number #1, and I’ve already changed the order. I’m tempted to do a three way tie, but ultimately it seems like a bit of a cop out, so let the chips fall where they may. I had never listened to Pavement before this year and they are quickly becoming a favorite. This album is odd in that it does not really hit you hard at first. But it slowly and surely gets into your brain and continues to keep you coming back.
It has stood the test of time. There are a lot of songs here that you actually have heard multiple times, but didn’t realize what it was until later. This is a classic album for indie rock, one that you can return to over and over again.
#2: Guided By Voices – Bee Thousand (1994)
It turns out 94′ had a huge amount of awesome indie rock. I genuinely feel like I was too young to understand all the good stuff happening in rock at that point. Again, this could easily be my number one album of 2014–it’s unlike anything else on the list.
Bee Thousand has 20 songs, varying in length but mostly faster. The melodies change abruptly. The song writing is obscure at times and makes little sense, but sounds fantastic regardless. Despite the multiple changes in tempo and style, it all just works. It is a lo fi offering with recording sounding mediocre at times, which strangely adds to the beauty of it as a cohesive work. It’s as though it was meant to be recorded as such. It’s fun, catchy and truly an achievement.
GBV also played Rock the Garden this year, and shortly broke up after. The show was good, but I suppose at some point you have to hang it up. Thankfully we have albums like this to remember them by.
#1: Conor Oberst – Upside Down Mountain (2014)
I was pretty sad to see that this album did not make a lot of year end lists. It’s baffling really. Out of all the contemporary artists of my generation, Conor will go down as one of the best, if not the absolute best writer of the lot. That may not always win you best album year by year, but decades down the road, he will be revered. Very few writers are on this level. I put him up their with Dylan, Young, Cohen and other historical greats. He’s amazing, reminds me of Dylan in that he’s not necessarily the best musician, or the best singer, but he’s damn good at both all things considered. And he is the best writer, contemporarily speaking.
This album is somewhat similar to his first solo album, but better. The first album was somewhat inconsistent, with some odd ball songs that didn’t really flow well. The songs here have a similarity to them, with the first song catching you off guard with a lilting guitar and eye opening poetry. The album continues on with emotional insights to the lives we lead here, how we get through the days and enjoy what we have after.
Though the entirety is filled with gems, the second half of the album is what catapulted it to the top of this list. ”You Are Your Mother’s Child” is a beautiful homage to growing up and parenthood. ”Governor’s Ball” is a diverse song with horns, excellent escalations and mysterious storyline. ”Desert Island Questionnaire” is a Bright Eyes throwback that is as sad as it is exciting, building to crescendo all before ending abruptly, only to leave you with another Oberst album ending — “Common Knowledge.” It is a solemn and slow offering that focuses on wordplay, much like “Milkthistle” did on his first self titled offering.
If you enjoy writers, this is the album of the year.