I was kind of down on 2013 in general when I did a roundup last year, but I have to say that 2014 is the best year for music I can remember, since maybe 2007. Which makes me think maybe there’s some kind of math thing that creates a surge of great music every seven years, although more likely it means I have some kind of brain disorder. But the striking thing about 2014 is how deep the bench was. There were some standouts, but the list of great music that I liked was really long, and consistent. And there was so much I just never got to. I have a long list of music to catch up on and I’m finding all kinds of great stuff buried in others people's lists.
It was also a good year for rock in my iTunes. I remember last year even thinking, man maybe I just don’t really like guitar rock that much anymore, since almost everything I was listening to was different stuff. But a lot of music I never would have expected to get into as much as I did made the list. Here were my favorites from 2014.
15. Thom Yorke — Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes
When Thom Yorke comes out with one of his non-Radiohead releases a lot of people will groan that they wish it was Radiohead. Or everyone just fusses over the release method. Not me. I love his solos, side projects, dancier stuff. It’s hard to describe but there’s a metallic coldness to it that is satisfying.
14. Fucked Up — Glass Boys
Not quite as good as David Comes to Life, but still just great. Every time I hear an interview with the guy from this band I like him and the band more and more. Such brainy, thoughtful hardcore. I know it’s kind of become hardcore for hipsters but what a great combo of stoner growl and melody.
13. Future Islands — Singles
These guys have been around a while, but I’ll admit I didn’t know anything about them until I watched that legendary performance on Letterman, which is one of the best live TV performances I think I’ve ever seen. And the music holds up on the record. Obviously "Seasons" is the jam on this one, but even sleepers like "A Song for our Grandfathers" held up for me all year.
12. Brian Reitzell — Music from the TV Show Hannibal Vols. 1-4
This is definitely the first time I can say a TV show’s score was in my favorite music of the year. And I’m tempted to not include it since I only got the records from my sister about a month ago. But I’ve actually loved the music for a long time since watching the first two seasons of Hannibal. It’s a rare show when you watch the credits to find out who scores it. But like Hannibal, this music is haunting, suspenseful, calming at times, and totally unique.
11. Run the Jewels 2
Killer Mike’s R.A.P Music from a few years back was one of the best things I had heard in years, but he and El-P’s second album under the RTJ name comes pretty close. I didn’t get that into the first Run the Jewels, but man this one is just a rampage of verses over insane beats.
10. Sun Kil Moon — Benji
I actually kind of lost track of Sun Kil Moon after the Modest Mouse cover album, so this one kind of came out of nowhere. But each song is like a little Raymond Carver story. Lots of sadness, humor, and it feels really unique for such an artist with such a long career.
9. Teebs — Estara
Organic, kind of tropical sounding electronic music. Not tropical like culturally from the tropics, but like tropical climate. Teebs is heavy on the beats, but has several layers of instruments like acoustic guitar and an abundance of bells in the mix. I listened to this a ton all year.
8. Taylor Swift — 1989
At this point, you just can’t dismiss Taylor Swift anymore. I thought Red was great, but 1989 is more consistent and has higher highs. Swift’s songs are so unbelievably loaded with hooks that if you have an mind prone to repetition it can actually become a problem. Some of the bridges on these songs were stuck in my head for days.
7. Angel Olsen — Burn Your Fire for No Witness
People compare her to Roy Orbison because she has kind of a croony voice, but that's a very reductive comparison. There’s way more to Angel Olsen than her voice. I’m also a sucker for fuzzy 90s guitar and rockabilly twang, and there’s a lot of it here, but it’s a remarkably multi-dimensional record.
6. Aphex Twin — Syro
After that Daft Punk disco nonsense, I was a little ambivalent about the new release from Richard D. James under his best known recording name. But it was great, just as good as any of the classics but still full of bizarre new twists.
5. Otis Brown III —The Thought of You
I never imagined a soul Shania Twain cover would be one of my favorite songs of the year, but there you go. That song will stand out, but there’s a lot going on in the jazz drummer’s first solo release. I even like the high concept interludes, including one featuring Brown’s wedding vows, which he lifted from a VHS tape.
4. Jenny Lewis — Voyager
Rilo Kiley was such a big band for me in the 00s that I always kind of dragged my feet on Jenny Lewis’s solo records. But Voyager proves once and for all that Lewis has left her old band completely in the dust. I like how she put the country stuff aside and embraced the 70s L.A. songwriter style. It's very introspective and grownup without feeling overly worldweary. So relatable, even if your life is nothing like hers.
3. Tweedy — Sukierae
I’m just going to say it, this is the best thing Jeff Tweedy has done since Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Yes, I like it more than the past three (four?) Wilco releases. It takes a little while to get into, but for a double album, it’s quite consistent and full of great songwriting. Sometimes Wilco feels a little overwrought or at its worst polished. This feels open, intimate, sad, and charming without getting silly.
2. Restorations — LP3
I’ll say it again, this was a good year for guitar rock. I’ve loved everything Restorations have put out, and LP3 is no exception. I’m still partial to their second release I think, but they’ve got the Springsteen punk thing down, giving longtime favorites in the field a run for their money.
1. Protomartyr — Under Color of Official Right
Man this band blew me away this year. Grungy, William Burroughs poetry barked out over super-tight punk arrangements. Protomartyr’s songs are terse and hook-filled, and swing from crumbling Detroit despair to raucous defiance. They remind me a lot of The Fall or The Stooges, but there’s something even more exposed and minimal about Protomartyr.
I also always have a thing for unlikely frontmen, and it’s impossible to not mention Joe Casey’s unorthodox persona. Greg Kot described them once as if a math teacher got fired, then met his former students at a bar later and they started a band, and that’s about right, except that Casey was actually just working at the bar when they met. Love love love this band. (this video is a bit gruesome btw)
And a bunch of honorable mentions to music I mostly haven’t given enough time to, including War on Drugs, Cloud Nothings, Sharon Van Etten, Swans, Todd Terje, Flying Lotus, Ex Hex, and on and on.