Top 10 Albums of 2014

Before we launch into the list, I’m going to take a moment reiterate some points (somewhat verbatim) that I made about year end lists when writing about my 10 favorite Seattle albums of the year over at Seattle Met. I’ve seen a lot of chatter recently decrying the very concept of ranking artistic endeavors as a year winds down. The main ideas behind this stance seems to be twofold:

1. “Art isn’t supposed to be a competition.”

That’s true, but one has to have a pretty warped and jaded to view to see lists like this as any sort of competition. A list is simply a way to say, “Look at all the awesome stuff that came out this year. Check out what you may have missed.” I take ranking to be merely a way of saying, “If you have limited amount of time, I’d say check out #1 first, #2 second…” and so on. People usually spend more time complaining about what isn’t on a list then thinking about what made any given countdown. Viewed them celebrations of things that provided some moments of joy rather than tools of derision.

2. “There’s no objective way to rank what’s the best.”

Duh. All year end lists are based on personal (or group editorial) preferences and biases. For example, the list below is entirely comprised of rock music. That’s weird, but that’s just how it shook out this year. I wasn’t drawn to any traditional pop, hip-hop, electronic, or other genre records enough for them to make the cut in 2014 (Lorde and Caribou have topped recent year end lists, so I clearly have no bias against any of it). And that’s totally fine. It’s all objective. It’s always objective.

Posse - Soft Opening10. Soft Opening – Posse
Posse’s throwback slacker indie rock vibe calls to mind some of the best of the ’90s bands, but it feels like the band’s simply kicking dirt on the outskirts of those forefathers’ property rather than looking to move in. The relaxed instrumental worlds the band creates seem so effortlessly natural, which offers the perfect backdrop whenever Paul Witmann-Todd interjects with another detached, snarky lyrical line on tracks like “Shut Up” and “Zone.” Soft Opening is music that’s artfully laissez-faire.

S - Cool Choices9. Cool Choices – S
Cool Choices is the breakup album of the year by a mile. From the lip-quivering opening notes of “Losers” to the finale’s (“Let the Light In”) blunt declaration “This was how I thought I’d get over you / I’d write it all down like it makes this true / Let go of the things that you said to me / And now in the end we can feel so free,” S (aka Jenn Ghetto) explores all the lowest moments in the aftermath of a love gone sour. In order to get over it, Ghetto’s got to let out all the pain. Cool Choices is catharsis in action.

PAWS - Youth Culture Forever8. Youth Culture Forever – PAWS
On Youth Culture Forever, PAWS connects with the spirit of youth while dealing with the reality of no longer being a kid. It’s about the making it through rough patches of growing up without growing old in soul. Whether it’s decrying the false pretense of cool apathy in a snarling burst of punk (“Give Up”) or reflecting on the melancholic feelings of returning to your hometown over distant, weakly gripped chords (“YCF”), the album hashes out those universal moments of old friends, old flames, and the old bullshit they bring to the table.

Dude York - Dehumanize7. Dehumanize – Dude York
Charmingly bratty is a difficult persona to pull off, but Dude York makes it look easy on Dehumanize. With manic energy and a strong melodic sensibility the band rips through songs of love (“Hesitate”), disenchantment (“Dehumanize Yourself and Face To Bloodshed”), and nihilism (“Believer”) behind Peter Richards’s berserk vocals and guitar and Andrew Hall’s deftly rapid fire beats and fills (my favorite drumming performance of the year). The album captures a delightfully foolhardy sense of passion that begs for a little thrashing.

La Sera - Hour of the Dawn6. Hour of the Dawn – La Sera
La Sera’s Katy Goodman dreams of eternal summer, but inevitably the season fades. Hour of the Dawn finds La Sera floating though a sea of warm and dreamy surf pop musings centered around the freedom, love, and decay of summer. After the blistering vitriol on the opening track “Losing to the Dark,” the band settles into a carefree groove with a touch of shredding guitar edge. There’s joy to be found by bathing in the sunshine of songs like “Running Wild” and even “Hour of the Dawn” despite its lament, “Summertime was the time of my life / Now it’s the hour of the dawn.” Don’t worry Katy, much like anyone who gives this album a listen, it’ll return.

TacocaT - NVM5. NVM – TacocaT
NVM is quite simply the funnest album that came out in 2014 than NVM. TacocaT excels at crafting silly sugary pop punk tunes out of just about any topic, from drug-fueled birthdays (“Psychedelic Quinceanera”) to menstruation woes (“Crimson Wave”) to anarchist roommates (“This is Anarchy”) to Seattle being unable to handle inclement weather (“Snow Day”). The most serious the band gets on NVM comes in the form of the audio middle finger to catcallers that is “Hey Girl,” but the rest of the time the singer Emily Nokes is more content to let her anger and tambourine banging loose on things like the bus not showing up (“FU #8”). Rocking out to stoner pop has never felt so sweet.

jag246.111834. Burn Your Fire for No Witness – Angel Olsen
While it spends most of the time softly brooding, Burn Your Fire for No Witness is without a doubt the most brutal record of the year. Angel Olsen’s haunting voice and knife-twisting songwriting make each a song a gut-wrenchingly beautiful exercise in the cruelty of love. With unshakeable songs like “White Fire,” Burn Your Fire for No Witness makes the listener feel like a slow burning candle – each passing moment they melt even further until there’s nothing left and the flame extinguishes.

Sharon Van Etten - Are We There3. Are We There – Sharon Van Etten
When was the last time Sharon Van Etten wrote a song that wasn’t—at the absolute least—very good? That’s not a rhetorical question. Van Etten is a model of heart-wrenching songwriting consistency, and Are We There is another worthy entry in her impressive songbook. She struts through each track with a vet’s swagger, nailing each song’s necessary demeanor: Cooly confident on “Taking Chances, emotionally masochistic on “Your Love is Killing Me,” and breezily whimsical on “Every Time the Sun Comes Up.” Even when the songs are bummers, there’s undeniable bliss in listening to a master continue to perfect her craft.

St.Vincent - St. Vincent2. St. Vincent – St. Vincent
With each passing record, St. Vincent is getting slightly stranger (and slightly better). St. Vincent finds Annie Clark effortlessly gliding between electronic funk of “Rattlesnake,” angular guitar riff driven tunes like “Birth in Reverse,” the horn-heavy “Digital Witness,” and spacey ethereal odes like “Prince Johnny” and “Severed Crossed Fingers.” Her (non-severed) fingers remain ever skilled on the fretboard as she delivers her takes on the monotony of our mundane modern existence (being out on the road with David Byrne for a couple of years will do that to you). I always like to joke that Clark is a higher life form than us humans, but—considering St. Vincent is her most complete and cohesive record in an already sterling catalog—it might just actually be the truth.

Against Me! - Transgender Dysphoria Blues1. Transgender Dysphoria Blues – Against Me!
If punk rock is supposed to give a voice to the brash, rebellious, maligned, and disenfranchised though unfettered aggression, then Against Me!’s Transgender Dysphoria Blues might just be the most punk album ever. The record serves as Laura Jane Grace’s screamed declaration of arrival as an open and out transgender woman. Over the course of 10 unrelenting tracks, she says” “Here’s who I am, here are the insecurities I’ve dealt with all my life, and I’m gonna kick in the teeth of any bigot who get in my way.” Against Me! turns deeply personal explorations of transgender issue into catchy, anthemic sing-alongs and capture the heartbreaking anguish of being a true outsider.

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Top 10 Songs of 2014

These are songs I thought were cool this year.

10. “Give Up” – PAWS

The PAWS album Youth Culture Forever dwells on the insincerity of old relationships as people grow up and grow apart. “Give Up” tries to parse though the bullshit of facades of indifference in a two and a half minutes of pissed off punk brilliance propelled by Josh Swinney wicked drumming. Burn bright, young and reckless glory.

9. “Forgiven/Forgotten” – Angel Olsen

Much of Angel Olsen’s Burn Your Fire for No Witness employs a slow burning pace that allows her to meticulously melt listeners’ emotional innards. “Forgiven/Forgotten” provides an essential divination from that clip, speeding things up and allowing Olsen to get her fangs out and bite into your still beating heart. The ferocity in her delivery makes any proclaimed forgiveness seem like shaky footing, but there’s no choice but to dig your heals in and let her intensity wash over you.

8. “Hey Girl” – TacocaT

“Hey Girl” isn’t my favorite song off TacocaT’s awesome album NVM. In fact, there are probably four our five I like better (“This is Anarchy” and “F.U. #8” for sure. But throughout the year I kept finding myself sharing the anti-catcalling anthem the most. While there was (as always) lots of push back, I think 2014 was a significantly positive year as far as feminist awareness goes, and when discussions sprung up in person or online, I often found myself bring up the greatness of “Hey Girl.” Those I shared the song with greeted it with near universal approval. It seems reductive to label it a feminist “moment,” but however you choose to categorize this year’s strives to equality, TacocaT contributed in the most fun way possible. That counts for something.

7. “Taking Chances (Demo)” – Sharon Van Etten

The album version of “Taking Chances” from Are We There is superb in its own right, but there’s a haunting vintage air to Sharon Van Etten’s demo version that’s even more enthralling. The 7″ b-side has a feel of lo-fi distance that makes it sound like a track from some long forgotten 1930s gem. Van Etten coos like a ghost of a bygone era, giving the song an ever so slightly different emotional punch. It may not be polished, but goddamn it’s beautiful.

(Note: There was no version of the song online, so I had to crudely shoot this video myself. Hopefully it does the track a modicum of justice and doesn’t get pulled.)

6. “Everybody Knows” – Iska Dhaaf

There’s something ominous about the lead guitar riff in “Everybody Knows.” It’s consistently swirling overhead like the memory chopper blades above a long forgotten battlefield (this was the imagery in my head prior to the music video being release, which made said video strangely more creepy). Iska Dhaaf builds progressively more tension with each verse, and the momentary relief of the inescapably catchy choruses only offer a brief reprieve before more chaos breaks loose. It’s an artfully balanced rock song that can’t simply be hid in the recesses of the mind.

5. “Fallen Giants” – Kithkin

“Fallen Giants” is basically everything you need to know about the chattering forest indie rock of Kithkin distilled into 4 blisteringly energetic minutes. Cascading layers of floor percussion rhythms clash with frantic yelps and wailing guitar lines, Ian McCutcheon and Kelton Sears trade smoothly calm and wildly jittery vocal verses, and the whole thing ends in a ball of chaos. It’s so exhilarating that it’s almost exhausting.

4. “Bigger Party” – Speedy Ortiz

Rule #1 of a Speedy Ortiz party: Keep your friends close and Sadie Dupuis closer. While Speedy Ortiz followed up 2013’s Major Arcana this year with the Real Hair EP, the band’s best song came via Adult Swim’s free single series. “Bigger Party” is the poppiest Speedy Ortiz tune to date and Dupuis sly lyricism cuts sharp and she meta-laments “I only want to sing about murder in my songs / I have to use these metaphors just to say I like you” and delivers the hooky refrain with the hollow apology, “I’m sorry for the time that I made out with all your friends / I’m really a shithead.” It the perfect tune for a basement party she’d be sure to ruin.

3. “True Trans Soul Rebel” – Against Me!

“True Trans Soul Rebel” acts as Transgender Dysphoria Blues‘s, and by that token Laura Jane Grace’s, heartbreaking declaration of transgender arrival and defiance. While she get more personal regarding her own transsexual experience on other tracks, the poetic simplicity and poignancy of refrain of “Does God bless your transsexual heart? / True trans soul rebel” shows the authentic tattered heart of a fighter. And while that would be powerful in and of itself, the fact that she was able to turn those lines into an anthemic rock chorus that demands to be screamed along regardless of where you identify on the gender spectrum ingrains the song with power and serves as a testament to Grace’s songwriting skills.

2. “Losing to the Dark” – La Sera

Don’t neglect La Sera’s Katy Goodman and expect to get away unscathed. On “Losing to the Dark,” Goodman brims with confidence and eye-rolling sarcastic ire as she decries her lover’s rock and roll lifestyle (“How ’bout you write another song about how fun you are to drink with at the bar?”) and angelically quips “What a shame it must be to have to be in love with me.” The edge in her voice is bolstered further by the surrounding tones as guitarist Todd Wisenbaker shreds without abandon. It’s the a vicious takedown tied up in a pretty surf pop package.

1. “Cannibal” – Dude York

I’ve had the first 5 seconds of “Cannibal” stuck in my head all year and loved air drumming along with the downbeat playing in my head every time. The strength of the song is the leash-like control Dude York maintains; one moment the grip is loose as Peter Richards howls and guitar bends make a crazy scene, but with a quick yank things become taunt and instantly focused around Andrew Hall’s drum beats. It’s an invigorating audio tug of war that’s yet to grow old.

Top 10 Albums of 2013 Revisited

Speedy Ortiz - Major Arcana
I enjoy end of the year albums lists, but they can seem outdated just 12 months later. There are two major reasons for this:

1. Over the course of more time, certain records grow on you. What’s the stuff you actually go back and listen to the most?

2. I’m a big dummy and I straight up miss listening to some stuff until the following year.

So I always post these revised rankings before launching into the current year’s edition. A lot of the albums I ranked in 2013 reshuffled for the reason outlined in #1 above. Also, I didn’t get into Speedy Ortiz until this year because I’m a fool whose opinions you clearly should never take seriously because I didn’t get into Speedy Ortiz until this year.

The Original Top 10 Albums of 2013

1. Pure Heroine – Lorde
2. Cerulean Salt – Waxahatchee
3. Sock It to Me – Colleen Green
4. Desperate Ground – The Thermals
5. Doom Loop – Mansions
6. Repeat – Wimps
7. S/T – Tancred
8. Surfing Strange – Swearin’
9. Hawaiii – Said the Whale
10. Matangi – M.I.A.

The Updated Top 10 Albums of 2013

1. Pure Heroine – Lorde
2. Major Arcana – Speedy Ortiz
3. Sock It to Me – Colleen Green
4. Desperate Ground – The Thermals
5. Cerulean Salt – Waxahatchee
6. Hawaiii – Said the Whale
7. S/T – Tancred
8. Doom Loop – Mansions
9. Repeat – Wimps
10. Matangi – M.I.A.