The Top 30 Albums of 2014

Rock is dead. At least so I’m told. With country, EDM, hip hop, R&B and perhaps even pop music all more popular than ever (and coalescing into the monogenre), there seems to be a widespread belief that guitar rock is passe and on the way out. On the NPR Music All Songs Considered year in review, Stephen Thompson asserted that he had hardly found any notable guitar rock this year as it had all but disappeared from popular music. Thompson’s notion that 2014 was devoid of rocking guitars was quickly dispelled as the rest of the NPR team reeled off several albums and artists that had simply slipped his mind. Nevertheless, the exchange was representative of the way that even some fans are mechanically internalizing the “conventional wisdom”.

Yet as I look over my top albums from the year gone by, one thing that stands out to me is how much great rock music there was this year. Sure, the list has some pop, synthpop, and even a touch of disco, but more than anything else, there’s rock. That’s not to say it’s a monolithic list; there’s some garage rock, indie rock, folk rock, art rock, post rock, punk, psychedelia, experimental, prog rock and plenty of metal influence, even in flamenco and latin funk forms. Suffice to say that there’s enough here to say that the heart of rock and roll is still beating, even if it’s bubbling under the surface of commercial radio.

For me, 2014 was dominated by two albums that I kept reaching for time and time again and are more appropriately labeled #1a and #1b than one and two. The rest of the list was remarkably difficult to order, to the point that I almost wanted to pull names out of a hat to make the list. I also thought about producing an unordered list, but I kind of felt like that would have been a cop-out. Then again, I have 31 albums on a top 30 list, so I’m not entirely above cop-outs (even if I placed the tie at 30 instead of number one just to preserve the optics of having the last item on a top 30 list be #30 instead of #31… tortured logic, ahoy!).

I’m not at all sure about what order most of these albums should be listed and it doesn’t really matter that much anyway, as the list will inevitably be obsolete in a week or two. Maybe I’ll revisit an album that didn’t impress me on first listen and it’ll connect, maybe some of the choices I made just won’t stick, and maybe I’ll discover an album on another list that’s really, really great. And that last point is a big reason why we make these lists: they’re about sharing a snapshot of what we liked and what made an impression over the last year and hopefully introducing others to great albums and artists that they might have missed. Inevitably, these lists will change over time, but as we stand at the end of 2014, this is the music that has soundtracked my year.

Album titles link to YouTube playlists, where officially available, Spotify albums where not. And for the one guy whose album is on neither one, you can chase that down on YouTube as well. I’ve also included a blurb from a review of each album that I appreciated as well as links to album profiles on Album of the Year, which has plenty more information and perspectives. And because there’s always Honorable Mentions, here’s who just missed the cut: Todd Terje, The Horrors, Stars, King Tuff, Liars, Jack White, Ages and Ages, The Colourist and Chromeo.

30 (tie). Future Islands – Singles
“When Future Islands recently performed their new marquee song on “Letterman”, the stunning “Seasons (Waiting On You)”, the secret was out: Here’s this guy, this dude with a tucked-in shirt, khakis, and a receding hairline bobbing and weaving, grinding gears in his throat, giving a “fuck yeah” gesture before a perfect pop modulation takes him to the chorus.” – Pitchfork | Singles on AotY
30. (tie) Mark McGuire – Along the Way
“Like a book where you can choose your own ending or a sandbox video game, the true beauty of Along The Way and the rest of McGuire’s output is that it is so free from the shackles of any genre or scene and so ‘out there’ that it is completely open to each listener’s interpretation.” – The 405 | Along the Way on AotY
29. Spoon – They Want My Soul
” It’s not exactly classic rock, not quite post-punk. It’s not the soul of indie idealists blindly conflating modesty and virtue. Instead, this band is about capturing the unknown—those “finer feelings,” as Daniel once put it—and simply letting it float.” – Pitchfork | They Want My Soul on AotY
28. Gemma Ray – Milk For Your Motors
“Sultry British singer/songwriter Gemma Ray relocated to Berlin to make her fifth album, a collection of noir-ish surf-doom ballads, and the kind of expansive pop-exotica fans have come to expect from this creative shape-shifting artist.” – AllMusic | Milk for Your Motors on AotY
27. Rodrigo y Gabriela – 9 Dead Alive
“Famed for their dextrous digits and finger-tut finicky fret freneticisms, Mexican twosome Rodrigo y Gabriela are two of the world’s most impressive guitarists. Performing ‘fusions’ as opposed to any pigeonhole-y style, their music flits between jazz, flamenco, Latin pop, heavy metal and rock.” – MusicOMH | 9 Dead Alive on AotY
26. Ex Hex – Rips
“Rips sounds fine on headphones or at home, but it’s best enjoyed in the car where it’s possible to feel more perfectly tuned into the music’s steady velocity.” – Pitchfork | Rips on AotY
25. Cymbals Eat Guitars – LOSE
“Lose, despite its detours in sound, is remarkably cohesive and whole. It’s a real gift, that the band could tackle tragedy without making it sound saccharine, but also without making it sound too glib.” – PopMatters | Lose on AotY
24. Ballet School – The Dew Lasts an Hour
“They know their way around a captivating (if not subtle) hook, so whilst it sounds bigger than the sum of its parts, there are enough great songs to justify this super-stylised and fearless approach to pop.” – MusicOMH | The Dew Lasts an Hour on AotY
23. The New Pornographers – Brill Bruisers
“All of these techniques — the streamlined mixing, the honeycombed harmonies, the poppy sci-fi synths — build a sonic unity made all the more bright when surrounded by the irreverent lyrics.” – Consequence of Sound | Brill Bruisers on AotY
22. Real Estate – Atlas
“While some of their self-titled debut and Days had a tendency to float over the listener, each track here has a hook that pulls you in.” – MusicOMH | Atlas on AotY
21. Strand of Oaks – Heal
“Showalter hops from rock genre from song to song in an effort to exercise demons of self-hate, substance abuse, alienation, and heartbreak. It would all be very bleak if the ultimate effect wasn’t catharsis, and if the music wasn’t so jubilant and full of life.” – A.V. Club | Heal on AotY
20. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – Days of Abandon
“It’s chock full of summery motifs, a John Hughes sheen and stomping chorus earworms, and if you can remove it from yer noggin without a team of skilled surgeons then get in line for canonisation, ’cause that’s a miracle.” – The 405 | Days of Abandon on AotY
19. Goat – Commune
“Like giant psychedelic wondersplats, their music gloops and gets bigger and more expansive every second, emitting bizarre rays of curling guitar lines from the jammy puddle. It’s so darn good that it makes your brain do a fuzzy little leap of joy, and hijacks every dancey muscle in sight.” – DIY | Commune on AotY
18. Kishi Bashi – Lilight
“Unless you can’t handle your musical tea with any sugar in it whatsoever, this is a staggering achievement of fun. It’s got serious chops, but at no point is it melodramatic.” – Line of Best Fit | Lilight on AotY
17. Alvvays – Alvvays
“Decked out in fuzzy warmth, youthful themes and angelic ebullience, the spangly sprogs add many a fresh twist on the tried-‘n’-tested scuzz-pop” – Line of Best Fit | Alvvays on AotY
16. Lykke Li – I Never Learn
“Though pace is rarely shaken up, this is a grandiose collection of songs with operatic tendencies. It’s the kind of record that would be backed by an orchestra during live performances.” – The 405 | I Never Learn on AotY
15. CEO – Wonderland
“an immersive experience that teeters perilously on the periphery between dream and nightmare and jubilation and despondence, while remarkably never getting lost amidst the confusion.” – Pretty Much Amazing | Wonderland on AotY
14. Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks – Wig Out at Jagbags
“While Pavement were a vanguard against commercial sterility, here Malkmus chooses to embrace his status as a classic artist of a by-gone era.” – Drowned in Sound | Wig Out at Jagbags on AotY
13. The Men – Tomorrow’s Hits
“Perro and the other Men … clutch to rock music like it’s a flotation device. Accordingly, Tomorrow’s Hits reflects decades of reverent listening and plays like it’ll have some say in whatever becomes of the now 11-year-olds this record will transform like Tommy transformed William Miller.” – Consequence of Sound | Tomorrow’s Hits on AotY
12. Music Go Music – Impressions
“What would you get if you took the icy, remote pop of disco-era ABBA and added just a touch of the warm, enveloping sound of peak period Fleetwood Mac?” – AllMusic | Impressions on AotY
11. Chet Faker – Built on Glass
“Despite having the kind of voice that would make your mother go weak at the knees, Chet Faker also has a strong left-field sensibility that appeals to those more discerning music aficionados out there.” – Line of Best Fit | Built on Glass on AotY
10. Mogwai – Rave Tapes
“The songs on Rave Tapes seem to be far more visceral than before – you can almost picture the scenes that each track could be soundtracking.” – The 405 | Rave Tapes on AotY
9. Archie Bronson Outfit – Wild Crush
“There has always been something of a primordial quality about Archie Bronson Outfit, whether it’s in thestomach-churning rawness of their garage-rock inspired sound, the bubbling sexual undertones of their lyrics, or perhaps simply in the facial hair…” – Line of Best Fit | Wild Crush on AotY
8. Wax Fang – The Astronaut
“The Astronaut is not without its fair share of camp. Certain lyrical choices and the degree to which the band’s tastes lean towards antiquated-sounding sci-fi rock at times brush dangerously close to the tonality of an overly-synthed New Wave groove.” – PopStache | (no AotY entry)
7. Against Me! – Transgender Dysphoria Blues
“Transgender Dysphoria Blues will be remembered as a milestone not because it’s the first widely known punk record performed by a trans woman, but because it brandishes a genre saturated by empty, male-centered politics to broadcast the most punk statements possible: Fuck the haters, be who you are, hold fast to those who love you.” – Consequence of Sound | Transgender Dysphoria Blues on AotY
6. Ty Segall – Manipulator
“Although Manipulator does exude a certain level of polish, there’s a sugary aggression to songs like It’s Over, Feel or The Faker, the latter being more of a Blues Magoos fuzz track.” – No Ripcord | Manipulator on AotY
5. The Budos Band – Burnt Offering
“For the first time, “funk rock” becomes an accurate descriptor for the still-complex musical sprawl, which now evokes the likes of Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin right alongside Fela Kuti.” – Paste | Burnt Offering on AotY
4. St. Vincent – St. Vincent
“It isn’t hardcore itself, but St. Vincent doesn’t give a fuck, and sounds weird doing it.” – PopMatters | St. Vincent on AotY
3. The Juan MacLean – In a Dream
“In A Dream is brand new, but has the feel of a timeless dance record, the kind of record that is pulled from the crate on the most special (and danceable) of occasions.” Exclaim! | In a Dream on AotY
2. The War on Drugs – Lost in the Dream
“But while it comes close often, Lost never fully lets go of its classic rock footing to delve fully into art rock. Instead, we get a brilliant record that serves as a perfect blueprint on how to make something new out of something old.” American Songwriter | Lost in the Dream on AotY
1. Swans – To Be Kind
“Instruments are being played, undoubtedly, but only the drums are distinct amid the chaos. The rest have been folded into a protoplasmic fist.” – A.V. Club | To Be Kind on AotY
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