The Best 50 Albums of 2014 (#30-21)


After releasing three tense and obscure collections of haunting acoustic-based songs (2009’s Leave Ruin, 2010’s Pope Killdragon and 2012’s Dark Shores) that showcased a deeply melodic and personal take on Americana that often brought to mind a Neil Young-ish On The Beach-vibe, it was reported that a, on Christmas Day 2013, Tim Showalter (aka Strand of Oaks) went through a near-death experience that has been pointed out as the main reason for the sheer boldness of this year’s HEAL. His fourth record is in fact jam-packed with loud guitars, synths and beats that summons folk, post-punk, grunge and even heavy-metal heritage in order to deliver a cleansing, thrilling and riveting rock’n’roll experience that has the character of an indie release and the moves of a major stadium-selling pop star.

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After their unique blend of post-punk, electronics and atmospheric landscapes generated a fabulous strike of three absolute classics for the alternative rock era (2004’s dense Desperate Youth, 2005′s Blood Thirsty Babes, 2006’s lavish Return to Cookie Mountain and 2008’s crystalline Dear Science), TV on the Radio released in 2011 the surprisingly sunny and mellow Nine Types of Light that definitely alienated some fans who missed their original angst and yearning approach to songwriting. They finally returned this year with Seeds, the band’s first since the passing of bass player Gerard Smith, and it is, strangely or not, the glossiest, most clear-eyed and anthemic collection of songs of their career, and possibly the closest thing to a pop album TV on the Radio will ever produce. Who said that a rock band couldn’t age gracefully and try new things at the same time?

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As far as supergroups go, The New Pornographers have always been quite unique: not only were their members yet to be famous outside of the Vancouver music scene when they formed, as they manage to released six successful and critically acclaimed records while their core members (Dan Bejar, Neko Case and AC Newman) managed to simultaneously make significant careers in the indie rock world arena. After releasing absolute classics of power-pop such as 2000’s Mass Romantic or 2005’s Twin Cinema, the band made their grand return this year with Brill Bruisers, an ambitious record that shows no sonic restraint in order to deliver one of the most shiny and colorful hook fests that we listened to in 2014.

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Following a massive tour that showcased an exciting multi-sensory experience that was poorly represented in last years Live album, SBTRKT returned this year with Wonder Where We Land, his long-awaited sophomore effort. Though the record maintains Arron Jerome’s trademarked intricate percussions and flowing melodies, it nevertheless features a much more confident Sampha on vocals next to some serious performances from Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koening, A$AP Ferg and Chairlift’s front-woman Caroline Polachek.

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After being a member of highly influential 90s alternative bands such as Autoclave and Helium, Mary Timony spent the following decade releasing obscure solo records that did little to expand her cult fan base until she joined Wild Flag in 2010, a bi-coastal quartet featuring Sleater-Kinney members Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss, who ended up releasing the following year an eponymous record that was not only a critical success but also allowed the band to tour extensively through the US. Ex Hex is not only her most recent musical endeavor but arguably her speediest one: it took her, bassist Betsy Wright and drummer Laura Harris less than a year after their first live show to write, produce and release their debut. Rips is a tight collection of 12 speedy, happy, riff-fuelled songs that will not only please Wild Flag fans, but anyone who appreciates memorable hooks and top-notched melodies. Everything seems to have been polished, amplified and streamlined for immediate appreciation. And there’s really no valid reason to resist.

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Though the Internet might tell you that Damon Albarn had released other solo records before Everyday Robots, one can really make a case defending that the African blues of 2002’s Mali Music, the demos of 2003’s Democrazy and the operatic grandeur of both 2007’s Monkey: Journey to the West and 2012’s Dr. Dee are less idiosyncratic of his musical persona than the records he released for the supergroups The Good, The Bad and The Queen or Rocket Juice & The Moon. Ever since Graham Coxon left Blur that Damon Albarn has been the unquestioned director of his musical adventures and projects, which makes, at first glance, Everyday Robots not a big novelty. That is until you actually listened to it – once you do, what you find is his most personal record to date; a melancholic yet warmed reflection about high-tech alienation that was not made to be listened while multi-tasking, but instead demands you pause everything else you’re doing, before pressing play.

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Wig Out at Jagbags is Stephen Malkmus and The Jicks‘ sixth album and by far the band’s poppets and most polished record to date, which happen to be a surprisingly fit companion to some of ex-Pavement frontman’s wittiest lyrics of his career. To paraphrase “Lariat”, to have grown up listening to the music from the best decade ever – still goes a long way.

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Lykke Li’s third record I Never Learn is a beautifully crafted set of break-up ballads that is a definitely a fascinating and unexpected detour in a musical career that, since its inception, seemed to be heading to mainstream stardom. Though it may lack the kind of tracks made to fuel successful world tours and late night show appearances, this newfound subtlety and restraint might be the most apt vehicle for her sensuous, spellbinding and retro-chic soprano-range vocals.

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For a band that cemented its reputation as one of the most consistent electronic pop bands of the UK with an unstoppable series of catchy and summery singles, Metronomy followed a rather new direction with their latest album. Though Love Letters still showcases their notorious penchant for catchy melodies and the warmth of vintage vocal groups such as The Supremes or The Zombies, they definitely refused to repeat the winning formula of 2011’s The English Riviera and went for a gloomier and darker sound that surprisingly suits the immensurable songwriting talent of Joseph Mount. One feels that they could have easily gone bigger in 2014 – instead, they chose to go deeper.

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When the generation-defining Trainspotting soundtrack was released back in 1996, nobody would have guest that two of the most preeminent featured artists would collaborate almost two decades later and releas two fascinating records in the space of four months. If the Danny Boyle film soundtrack was, at the time, a major breakthrough for the house music and electronica band Underworld, the record was also a rare opportunity for Brian Eno to showcase his ambient work to a wider audience and a new generation unfamiliar to his most challenging work. In a way, Someday World and High Life, the two 2014’s full-lengthen efforts of the rather surprising Brian Eno and Underworld-frontman Karl Hyde collaboration, have all the ingredients to become also an important chapter in the career of two visionary musicians whose later offerings have failed to make any impact outside of their cult. Whether one feels more inclined to High Life’s funky grooves and warm textures or to Someday World’s busy and sunny rhythms, both records are here to remind us why Brian Eno and Karl Hyde were responsible for some of the most enduring popular music in the heart of several generations.

João Pedro da Costa

João Pedro da Costa is a web studies scholar and a music fan.