Who needs subtlety when you've got fire? Transgender Dysphoria Blues is a straight half hour of pure pop-punk rock goodness, an onslaught of Dookie-sized hooks and riffs that rage and delight. The title, as well as much of the album's content, is inspired by lead singer Laura Jane Grace's coming out as transgender in 2012, and the ensuing aftermath. The decision has obviously taken a toll on her, the LP's lyrics consumed with overbearing pessimism ("Even if you're love was unconditional/It still wouldn't be enough to save me"), barrier-marking ("There will always be a difference between me and you"), and perceived abuse from the male eye ("Your tells are so obvious/Shoulders too broad for a girl," "You've got no cunt in your struts/You've got no ass to shake"). The bluntness of her words can be a bit jarring, but that's the point; Grace's perspective on the world is one that's often ignored or deliberately avoided, and TDB gives her a platform to share aspects of her life's trials and tribulations without pulling any punches. You could look at it as brash socio-political stance-making, or simply enjoy the unique nature of her paradigm, but anyway you size it, there's no denying those riffs. Transgender Dysphoria Blues is not content to simply slip into the background; it demands that you to take notice.
9. Zaba---Glass Animals
Zaba doesn't need explicit lyrics or naughty found sounds to get its point across; give it a whopping 20 seconds, and you'll know exactly what's on Glass Animals' mind. Everything here is hushed and seductive, from vocalist David Bayley's agonizingly patient delivery, down to the tropical-sounding percussion that drives much of the band's 45-minute-long come-on. There's a lot going on here, immediate influences ranging from Trip Hop, R&B, Electronica, Bedroom Pop, and Smooth Jazz, but what's more impressive than the simple inclusion of these many disparate sounds is how Zaba manages to reign them all into one singular identity. They may be the descendants of quite a few forefathers, but on their debut LP, Glass Animals combine their many influences into something strikingly original, and and unnervingly sexy.
When The Lion's Roar came out in January of 2012, it was easy to think that First Aid Kit was already a fully formed commodity. The Swedish sisters Johanna and Klara Söderberg, respectively aged all of 21 and 18 at the time, had such a strong ear for melody, their twangy hymns both immediate and irrefutable. Stay Gold, however, sees the pair take yet another leap, crafting an album as robust with lovely sounds as it is with expert songwriting. Much of the credit goes to folksy super-producer Mike Mogis, a veteran of their last record who throws the kitchen sink at Stay Gold, adorning the Söderbergs' gloriously simple, intrinsic country ditties with enough strings, horns, percussion, and lesser-known instruments to populate a small nation. It's quite the trick, turning these modest songs into grandstanding, occasionally epic southern-tinged anthems whilst maintaining the core of what made them appealing in the first place. The Söderbergs' harmonies guide us through it all, their voices locking into one another with an unfettered perfection unthinkable to most mere mortals, massaging ear drums with their every golden note. Don't expect them to turn silver anytime soon.
Annie Clark has no interest in being the exact artist you want her to be; if you desire to spend time with St. Vincent, you'll have to come to her, not the other way around. While previous Vincent records have made no buts about letting their freak flag fly, her 2014 LP dives furthest down into the deep end, locating both her identifiers and strengths, and doubling down on every last one. St. Vincent sounds huge, nearly every guitar refrain both crunchy and flammable, the percussion pronounced and punchy, the singer/songwriter's vivid, irregular lyrics brought further into the forefront than ever before. As strange as this sounds for a beloved artist now on her fourth album, the record plays like Clark's coming out party, so bold and brazen at every turn, and limitlessly varied in its sound. Digital Witness squeals and barks, Prince Johnny is deliciously weightless, and Bring Me Your Loves loses all semblance of sanity the second you press play... and, for good measure, is followed by a song entitled Psychopath. There's no denying that St. Vincent is a weirdo, but when she commits to following that singularly gonzo muse of her's, the results can be glorious.
6. I Never Learn---Lykke Li
Need something really up-beat and cheerful to get you through the upcoming week? Then stay the hell away from I Never Learn! Lykke Li, no stranger to self doubt and discrimination, has never been this hard on herself before, the result of what the songstress herself describes as "the biggest break up of (her) life." Expunging the piss and vinegar of her earlier work, I Never Learn is the sound of a broken heart opening up, and spilling its contents out for the whole world to see, each track fearlessly over-the-top, a collection of unapologetic ballads drenched in gorgeous instrumentation and a steady, unshakeable sense of sadness. As powerfully gaudy as it is emotionally unsettling, I Never Learn is a break-up album for the ages, a half-hour long relationship dirge that's probably at home right now decked out in pajamas, and wolfing down ice cream. It's certainly not something you'd want to play on a summer afternoon, but I'll tell you this; every time the rain falls, I think of Lykke.
5. Here and Nowhere Else---Cloud Nothings
Simply put, no 2014 album does as much damage in a mere half-hour as Here and Nowhere Else, eight straight tracks of punk rock snarl that see no need for stop signs, seat belts, or even speed limits. The band has undergone quite the makeover since 2010, when Cloud Nothings consisted solely of singer/songwriter Dylan Baldi, an expert pop-punker who positively needed drummer Jayson Gerycz's live wire percussion to get where he is now. Much of his foregrounded tunefulness has been abandoned in favor of spit-fire cadences and gritty mania, Just See Fear descending into a pit of grisly violence, Baldi nearly flaying his vocal chords near the end of Pattern Walks. All of this heedless tempo-revving and wanton aggression would lead us nowhere if not for the melodies that Baldi provides in almost covert fashion, he and Gerycz practically at war for band figurehead, the friction of their opposing strengths bringing out the best in thrilling fashion. What you see above is possibly the most ill-fitting album cover of the year; something tells me these guys would lay waste to this small, peaceful little town, leaving nothing behind but ruins and rock.
Azealia Banks' debut LP, Broke with Expensive Taste, was released through itunes on November 6th, 2014, over three years after her first single, 212, exploded across the internet, setting her on a course for fame and fortune. Things didn't exactly work out as planned; the elongated lead-up cooled some interest, a silly Twitter beef or two shrunk her fan base, and the wily nature of the album itself ensured that #30 was the highest BwET ever reached on the Billboard Top 200, immediately falling all the way down to #105 in its second week of release. All I have to say is this: you guys are missing out. Banks flow is both swift and razor sharp, cramming words into impossibly tight spaces, rhymes bouncing off of each other with the ferocity and speed of bullets, but anyone who's heard 212 could have probably anticipated that. The real surprise here is the endless variety on hand, no two songs sounding quite alike in the album's lengthy hour-long runtime, resulting in one of those rare discs where the sonic possibilities seem literally limitless, as though anything could happen at any time. While this does lead to some pretty serious WTF?-ery (Nude Beach A-Go-Go), it also results in sudden blasts of sun-soaked pop (Soda), gangster jams tricked out with glitter (Ice Princess), sex-fueled hip-hop hop-scotch (Desperado) club-ready stompers (Heavy Metal and Reflective), and even bilingual, schizophrenic two-parters (Gimmie a Chance). Maybe the world isn't quite ready to embrace such a lewd, confident, wily, and ambitious female as a solo hip hop artist, but one spin of Broke with Expensive Taste, and you'll know that's their loss.
If you'd have asked me around this time last year, I'm not sure I'd have even told you I like The Black Keys (seriously, check out the last paragraph of my El Camino review... bitter much?). Not only did Turn Blue completely re-shape my opinion on a band like no single album has since Swing Lo Magellan, it did so in record time, those introductory notes of Weight of Love at once both revelatory and familiar to the two-piece's sound. Everything here is so patient, from the stop-start tempo of psych rock confection Bullet in the Brain, to the groovy sway of the title track. I'm certainly not the only one to notice the change, the majority of critics and fans going the opposite direction, shading Turn Blue as a sleepy, less energetic offering. These charges might be true to the right ears, but to mine, this an enormous step in the right direction, an album that shakes off a good portion of the radio-ready gloss that's been caked onto their sound over the last several years in favor of a deeper, more expansive offering that plays front-to-back with a cohesion that would turn most bands green with envy. Past bangers like Tighten Up and Gold On the Ceiling brought you the goods on first listen, the immediacy of their pleasures arriving and departing like a sugar rush. Turn Blue is a main course by any measure, murky, brooding, and downright enveloping.
Between Turn Blue and They Want My Soul, 2014 might have to go down as the year of me eating my words. While I've never possessed any real venom for Spoon, their songs often struck me as either one-note or boringly safe, a pair of charges TWMS erases to such an extent, I wonder if I've been wrong about these guys all along. The eighth album in this band's sneakily prolific career, They Want My Soul is the dictionary definition of 'all-killer, no-filler,' a ten-pack of masterfully constructed alt rock stunners who's only true unifying theme is an extremely lofty level of quality. Sometimes they rock (Rent I Pay, Outlier), sometimes they pine (I Just Don't Understand, New York Kiss), sometimes they swoon (Inside Out, Do You), and sometimes they sway (Rainy Taxi, Let Me Be Mine); the only thing Spoon really fails to do here is write a bad song. It's hard speak in length about They Want My Soul for the very same reason it's difficult to give elongated descriptions of perfectly sunny days, or adorably cute pets; its charms are all right there for you to hear, residing front and center, ready to be indulged in over and over again.
"You were simpler, you were lighter/when we thought like we were kids/like a weightless, hate-less animal/beautifully oblivious before you were hid/inside the stranger you grew into/as you learned to disconnect."
Not everyone truly knows themselves. Scratch that: almost no one truly knows themselves. It's a problem that has obviously been kicking around in the brain of Antlers' figurehead Peter Silberman for quite a while now, the fashion in which the many versions of ourselves wage war inside us, our purest forms sometimes losing the battle. It's a theme that led the band to leave much of their established sonics behind them, creating the very weightless, hate-less animal that Silberman breaths ravishing life into on opener Palace. Familiars likely won't impress anybody on the first go-around; the disc is too languid, too strange, and too of-a-piece with itself to jump out of speakers or head phones right away. It's a grower in a way that very few albums are, its thorny ideas about death, life, self, and singularity revealing themselves slowly, floating around in a crystal-clear pool of resplendent guitars, breezy horns, and Silberman's remarkable, ghostly croon. His voice is one of the most underrated things happening in music today, able stretch out into a painfully beautiful falsetto, contort into something warped and haunting, and bring you to the verge of tears with a single syllable. It paints in vivid colors along the enormous, echoing canvas of Intruders, reaches for the heavens on the aforementioned Palace, and even rocks you to sleep on Surrender. Upon the release of 2011's Burst Apart, I gave up hope for The Antlers ever returning to the dizzying heights of their heart-breaking masterpiece Hospice, but with Familiars, they game the system for the better, returning with an almost unrecognizable sound. Their new-fangled, down-down-down-tempo trappings take you to another world, one soaked in radiant majesty, lorded over by one of the most astounding singers you'll ever hear. Familiars is a journey from captivity to freedom, traversing the many factions and crevices of doubt, fear, and futility found inside all of us, and triumphantly breaking free. What more could you ask from the best album of 2014?
Hype Starts Here's Top 50 Albums of 2014:
Hype Starts Here's Top 100 Songs of 2014: