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Bigger and bitchier: A superlative rundown of the best records of 2014 so far

Angel Olsen (Photo: Zia Anger)
Angel Olsen (Photo: Zia Anger)

If 2013’s crop of albums made for an embarrassment of rock riches, 2014 has been a bit more sedate. Plenty of good records have come out this year, but there has still not been one universally agreed upon shining star. That critical bell curve makes The A.V. Club’s examination of our favorite records this year into an interesting (we think, at least) examination of the polyculture, highlighting anthemic hardcore and hard-to-get-into collections of anthems. The superlatives below cover our favorite LPs that remind us of Ween, ponder gender transition, and contain a surprising amount of references to a mass-market fast food bakery. It’s a motley list, but it covers the very best records of the year so far, from Angel Olsen to Neil Young.

Most likable record from an increasingly unlikable rock star: Jack White, Lazaretto
If we didn’t know any better, it’d be easy to suspect that Jack White goes completely out of his way to be a dick (maybe he does, who knows). But even with his infuriating insistence on grabbing headlines by bashing The Black Keys, dishing about Meg, et al., it’s hard to poke holes in the fact that the guy knows his way around a good rock ’n’ roll song as well as anyone. Lazaretto, White’s latest go at retooling arena rock and pre-war blues into his own musical plaything, once again forces listeners to leave their prepackaged Jack White baggage at the door and just enjoy the trip. [RB]

Most surprising record by a guy who’s built his career on surprising you: Neil Young, A Letter Home
On first glance, there seemed to be a million ways in which A Letter Home could have (and probably should have) fell flat on its face. And in anyone else’s hands but Neil Young’s, it almost certainly would have. And yet A Letter Home, recorded entirely by Young in a lonesome, antiquated record booth, feels absolutely timeless. It’s a record built on heart and a love of the songs of yesteryear, and its rough edges just give it an added charm that can’t be recreated with Pro Tools. Young’s made a stellar career out of zigging when others zag, but his latest is a surprising success even by his own lofty standards. [RB]

Best record to calm your fears about growing old: Bob Mould, Beauty And Ruin
Over the course of a 35-year career, Bob Mould has been up and down more times than he or anyone else can probably count. But at 54, he seems to have completely come full circle. In the words of Radiohead, he’s fitter, happier, and more productive. Beauty And Ruin, as the title suggests, tackles the good and the bad head-on in equal measure. But it sounds wonderfully alive, and in the end it’s the work of a guy who sounds totally at peace with everything the world has thrown at him. Anyone who says you should be ready to settle by the time you hit middle age, take notes. [RB]

Record most likely to fill the void in your heart left by the breakup of Ween: Mac DeMarco, Salad Days
Ween’s dissolution was a bummer, and even Aaron Freeman’s solo debut, Marvelous Clouds, couldn’t quite make things right. But Mac DeMarco did a pretty nice job of stitching up the wound with Salad Days, a record that has the hazy ramshackle weirdness of the band’s Chocolate And Cheese era without the in-your-face absurdity. Call it an out-of-left-field sleeper hit of the most surprisingly pleasant variety. [RB]

Best album about inanimate objects: La Dispute, Rooms Of The House
At its core Rooms Of The House is about objects. How they fill space and time, constantly shifting and sagging under the weight of our lives. This may seem like unlikely territory for a scrappy post-hardcore act, but there’s never been anything typical about La Dispute, whose latest album sonically shifts from frenzied to restrained as vocalist Jordan Dreyer twists his verbose narratives into expositions that explore losing a child or the careful cataloging of shared possessions. Rooms Of The House’s biggest triumph is illustrating that upon further inspection, these types of seemingly disparate acts are often intimately related. [JB]

Best exploration of gender transition: Against Me!, Transgender Dysphoria Blues
What’s “punk” in an era where mohawks and scarification seem quaint? One of the few taboos left is gender transitions, which is exactly what Against Me! frontwoman Laura Jane Grace underwent publicly in 2012. Transgender Dysphoria Blues explores this experience but does so in such a universal way that you’ll feel as cut down when Grace sings about being called “faggot” during the title track as you’ll be lifted up by infectious anthems like “FUCKMYLIFE666.” Grace’s story wasn’t calculated, but the perfect storm of her bravery and the relentless rhythm of her bandmates bring it to life in unprecedented fashion. [JB]

Dreamiest album by which to ponder your depressing life: Fear Of Men, Loom
Jessica Weiss, singer of Fear Of Men, does not sound happy. On the British band’s debut album, Loom, Weiss solemnly contemplates everything from rejection to alienation to some more nebulous kind of existential angst. But she does so with deliciously chilled sweetness, even as the rest of the band floats along on puffs of ambient melodicism that recall vintage Sarah Records indie-pop and the cool, distant tones of Broadcast. It may require an antidepressant or three, but it sure is dreamy. [JH]

Best reissue that no one really needed: Led Zeppelin, I, II, and III
Led Zeppelin is one of the most neglected bands in history—that is, if you’re to take at face value the new, deluxe reissues of the group’s first three albums, I, II, and III. The vault of unissued Zeppelin material has long been mined dry, which leaves these expansions stuffed with so-called bonus cuts like “Thank You (Backing Track)” and “That’s The Way (Rough Mix With Dulcimer And Backwards Echo).” It’s the kind of miscellanea that loses sight of the forest for the trees. Anyway, everyone knows the best way to hear a song off the first three Zeppelin albums is on a shitty car stereo tuned to the local classic-rock station. [JH]

Best reissue that the world desperately needed: Lavender Country, Lavender Country
While some of the biggest bands in history are getting less-than-necessary reissues this year, some of the underdogs are fighting their way through—like Lavender Country. The candid, outspokenly gay country project was formed in the early ’70s by singer-songwriter and gay activist Patrick Haggerty, who issued the group’s sole, self-titled album in 1973. Not only does it offer an unvarnished, frequently inspired take on post-hippie country music, it’s a record whose reissue couldn’t come at a better time, when gay rights and inclusiveness are issues as evocative and relevant now as ever. [JH]

Most appropriate soundtrack for self-harm: Indian, From All Purity
There’s nothing particularly symbolic or thematic about Indian, the Chicago metal band that sounds like the most nihilistic hardcore group slowed down and stretched out to a torturous extreme. But Indian’s latest album, From All Purity, nails a certain mood with brooding intensity: that of regret, hopelessness, flagellation, and perhaps even some self-inflicted, psychic wounds. When sharpened against the dull, rusty blade of the band’s blackened riffs—not to mention frontman Dylan O’Toole’s bone-cracking screams—it makes for one long, doom-fraught spasm that’s aimed harrowingly inward. [JH]

Strongest comeback from the ancient epoch that is the ’00s: Owls, Two
In the mist-shrouded distance that is the year 2001, a band named Owls released an album named Owls. Hardly anyone bought it, in spite of the group’s lineup being an almost exact replica of Cap’n Jazz, the early-’90s emo band that’s now held as one of the genre’s prime movers. But Owls’ intricate, cryptic indie-rock has grown in stature over the past decade, to the point where the band was spurred to reunite and make an excellent new album, Two, this year. It’s as if the intervening centuries between Owls records hadn’t actually happened at all. [JH]

Best album with a two-plus hour runtime: Swans, To Be Kind
Few bands can pull off an album’s worth of punishing drone rock that finds a sweet balance between purposely grating and shockingly absorbing. Swans have been doing just that for more than 30 years now and have only grown more adventurous with each album. To Be Kind, which clocks in at just over two hours, is at turns chaotic, glacial, menacing, and seductive. It’s an album that builds on the dense sounds of The Seer while also creating more open space in the arrangements. The result is another singular, meditative, hypnotic vision worth descending into for hours on end. [KF]

Best 70s bachelor pad album: Todd Terje, It’s Album Time
It’s Album Time is Norwegian electro-disco at its finest. Despite Todd Terje’s proclivity for hopping from one influence to another—he evokes surf, ’70s disco, shag carpets, jazz, ’80s Miami clubs, and techno across the album’s 12 tracks—there’s an easy confidence and cohesion to the entire record. Remarkably, it’s both easy-listening background music and a rewarding deep listen, at times a nod to past eras, as well as a slight pastiche. So many electronic albums are satisfied with just regurgitating the past; It’s Album Time intelligently engages with it, re-contextualizing and re-tooling familiar sounds alongside Terje’s playful aesthetic. [KF]

Most triumphant comeback: Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, Give The People What They Want
Right after Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings announced Give The People What They Want, Jones was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and had to put her career and the album on hold. Following multiple rounds of chemotherapy, Jones finally released the LP and is now cancer free. While it was recorded before her diagnosis, Give The People What They Want is a triumphant document of riveting soul. A lively 33 minutes of the band’s brassy, Motown-inspired tracks, Give The People What They Want proves Jones’ fiery tenacity. [JT] 

Most references to Panera Bread: Sun Kil Moon, Benji
Panera Bread gets two mentions in Mark Kozelek’s latest Sun Kil Moon record Benji and it isn’t even the only restaurant chain to get a shoutout. KFC and Domino’s Pizza are mentioned on “Truck Driver,” while “Dogs” features a remark about Red Lobster. While these references are sometimes funny, they do little to distract from the album’s solemn emotional heft. One of Kozelek’s most autobiographical LPs yet, the beautiful and minimal Benji describes everything from the deaths of family members, to a childhood loss of innocence, to middle-age rock star friendships in painstaking, almost stream-of-consciousness detail. While most of Benji’s hour-long runtime is just Kozelek and a nylon-stringed guitar, his vivid and devastating lyricism fills the sparse arrangements. [JT]

Best electronic album by a rock band: Wye Oak, Shriek
By Wye Oak’s fourth album Shriek, Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack had exhausted their guitars. Needing a creative change, they opted for just synthesizers and bass on the LP. Though the wiry, muscular guitar chords on 2011’s Civilian were so memorable, Shriek is just as confident even without the six-string swagger. Instead, the album highlights a softer and dreamier side of the band, with electronic arrangements that float, saunter, and suit Wasner’s smoky alto. While Wasner had experimented with these elements before in her side projects Flock Of Dimes and Dungeonesse, Shriek marks a risky makeover that’s both complete and assured. [JT] 

Best bloody album by a 00s British band you forgot you sort of cared about: Kaiser Chiefs, Education, Education, Education & War
The Leeds lads in Kaiser Chiefs proved semi-prescient with 2005’s “I Predict A Riot,” a New Wave-esque anthem that had Yanks all riled up for a good two or three months. Following their debut, Employment, however, the Chiefs struggled to raise another ruckus, and their next three albums barely caused minor kerfuffles. This new one—the group’s first since the departure of main songwriter Nick Hodgson—won’t necessitate any crowd control the next time the guys land at JFK, but it’s a spirited set of broad, punky sing-alongs about war, workaday life, and other annoyances. Go in expecting dumbed-down Pulp or sobered-up Libertines, and you won’t come out feeling cheated. [KP]

Best bloody album by a 00s British band you never actually cared about: Kasabian, 48:13
If you’re a British band looking to break big in America, the trick is to reference The Beatles or The Rolling Stones—not Primal Scream and the Stone Roses, like Kasabian did when it came on the scene in 2004. Kasabian’s danceable psych-rock was never going to grab Americans not hip to the group’s influences, and while this latest record—not yet released in America—swirls and struts much like the old stuff, that’s not such a bad thing. “Doomsday” is a lad-rock “Livin’ La Vida Loca.” “Eez-eh” takes you out like Franz Ferdinand used to. When it all gets to be a little too clubby, the lazy, hazy closer “S.P.S.” sends listeners day tripping into some sweet Cali sunshine. [KP]

Greatest cathartic punk cleanse: White Lung, Deep Fantasy
Juice cleanses and toxin-reducers might be all the rage, but few things are as refreshing to the ears as White Lung’s punk opus Deep Fantasy. 2012’s Sorry put the Vancouver quartet on the map, but this year’s Domino debut thuds with abandon and bottomless ambition. Vocalist Mish Way shrieks while wrestling monsters both within and outside of herself, tethered by thick guitar wails and new member Hether Fortune (Wax Idols) thumping along on bass. White Lung is taking over the world, so Deep Fantasy is basically the only cleanse you need. [PM]

Best self-deprecating rock album: Protomartyr, Under Color Of Official Right
Rock music is an ideal conduit for feelings of self-effacement, and Protomartyr’s wonderful Under Color Of Official Right is bred directly from this hallowed lineage of self-deprecation. This sharp record finds the Detroit band wading at low depths and unafraid to admit as much: “Alice In Chains / Played on repeat / Not feeling great,” shrugs vocalist Joe Casey on “What The Wall Said,” later on admitting that he’ll “Try to live defeated” on the swelling “Come & See,” although it sounds like he’s already there. But even when Casey commands listeners to throw undesirables from the rock, there’s an unpretentious quality to his tone, as though he’s still pondering how he got here in the first place. Talent, fellas. You’ve got a lot of it. [PM]

Album you would have least expected to be influenced by dub music: Damien Jurado, Brothers And Sisters Of The Eternal Son
With substantial assistance from producer (and Shins keyboardist) Richard Swift, Damien Jurado left behind nine years and five albums of sparse, gothic heartland folk with 2012’s psychedelic Maraqopa, but has never pushed his personal envelope quite as far as he does on sequel Brothers And Sisters Of The Eternal Son. Exhibit A: The ’70s experimental dub textures floating across the record, prominently so on the mystically funky, rhythmic mind-bender “Silver Donna.” Jurado and Swift swirl these and other left-field influences seamlessly into a hazy sound collage, creating a beautifully translucent rendition of the dark Americana that Jurado has already mastered. [CM]

Best companion album to cuckoo-bananas TV performance: Future Islands, Singles
Singles starts strong with the whiz-bang “Seasons (Waiting On You),” which gained prominence after Future Islands’ full-throttle Late Show performance of the song (prompting Letterman’s comment “I’ll take all of that you got!”). But the whole record is a wonder, as Samuel T. Herring’s Tom Jones-meets-Jackie Wilson vocals weave in and out of synths and the band’s crack rhythm section. The cover of Singles features a woman gazing out at sea, and it takes a second to realize she has no head or legs. This image is oddly appropriate: You’ve seen this before, but there are enough surprises to keep you amazed. [DB]

Uncanniest imitation of Sea Change by Beck: Beck, Morning Phase
Morning Phase sounds for all the world like Beck’s 2002 masterwork Sea Change, and this seems to be by design: The production (by Beck himself) bears a strong resemblance to Nigel Godrich’s warmly delicate work on Sea Change, and the tone of melancholy remains. But Morning Phase is more spiritual cousin than twin. The despondency of the first record has been replaced by a calm resolve, and songs like the serene “Blue Moon” and the country-tinged “Heart Is A Drum” are the sound of a once-young artist grappling with middle age. Cry “It’s not as good as Sea Change!” if you must, but that was never the point. [DB]

Best diary entry masquerading as a rap album: Open Mike Eagle, Dark Comedy
It’s become trendy for rap to move toward the internal (see: Drake), but Open Mike Eagle’s Dark Comedy takes that to its natural conclusion. Eagle puts everything on display—the first track alone brings the listener from “that laugh to keep from crying tip” to his coffee drinking habits. And Dark Comedy perfectly captures the thought process of a pop culture-drenched rapper, using references to reveal deeper wounds. Take standout track “Very Much Money (Ice King Dream),” which uses Adventure Time’s crazed wizard/tragic hero to imagine talented young artists as superheroes whose powers don’t matter when they can’t afford to eat. It’s not all bummer rap, though—the album also features a genuine rap verse from Hannibal Buress. [ET]

Best Blaxploitation movie on wax: Freddie Gibbs And Madlib, Piñata
Throughout his full-length collaboration with elusive genius Madlib, Freddie Gibbs proves himself to be one of the best rappers in the game. The precision of Gibbs’ storytelling and witching hour menace of Madlib’s beats combine to establish the rapper as a larger-than-life character, experiencing heartbreak, laying waste to his enemies (especially former mentor Young Jeezy), and of course moving enormous quantities of drugs. Gibbs himself describes the record as “a gangster Blaxploitation film on wax”—given the texture created by their combined talents, it’s unsurprising that the best rap album of the year (so far) proves a more than worthy, funky, and bleak heir to the classic soundtracks of those movies. [ET]

Most impressive debut from a rapper nobody guessed had a classic debut in him: YG, My Krazy Life
YG is nobody’s idea of a great rapper. He’s neither a vivid lyricist nor a distinguished stylist, and anybody who remembers him from his cheesy 2009 pop-rap single “Toot It And Boot It” could be forgiven for dismissing it as a one-hit wonder. The Compton rapper received his second break last year, when his producer of choice, DJ Mustard, emerged as one of rap’s hottest commodities. As a showcase for Mustard’s signature sound, YG’s debut album My Krazy Life is unimpeachable, but YG isn’t just riding Mustard’s coattails. He brings a sympathetic, everyman quality to My Krazy Life’s day-in-the-life tales of revelry and regrets, narrating rap’s most realized morality tale since Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City. It may lack the sophistication of Kendrick Lamar’s masterwork, but it’s a lot more fun to play at parties. [ER]

Album most likely to make you sob uncontrollably: Sharon Van Etten, Are We There
On her previous albums, Sharon Van Etten confided about abusive relationships but glossed over the truly terrible parts. Her devastating fourth record pulls no such punches, capturing not only the emotional toll of domestic abuse but also a real sense of physical peril. “He can break me with one hand,” she sings with chilling calm. With her early songs Van Etten reassured us that she’s fine, that she’s stronger for all she’s been through, but Are We There dares to suggest that, for all her resilience, she’s not fine. It’s a terrifying, heartbreaking record, and one of the most powerful you’ll hear all year. [ER]

Best synth-pop album for people sick of synth-pop: Sylvan Esso, Sylvan Esso
Honeyed synth-pop in 2014 is what woodsy folk was in 2009: indie rock’s go-to sound, a safe aesthetic that proliferates radio, commercials and TV soundtracks mostly because, hey, it’s in vogue and nobody’s offended by it. The North Carolina duo Sylvan Esso are as innately agreeable as any other act working in this lane, but don’t mistake their likability for blandness. The duo’s self-titled debut takes real risks, from the rabbity delivery of singer Amelia Meath to the brainy production of Nick Sanborn, who packs these beats with tactile sensation and unexpected jolts. Their debut is a reminder that just because music holds mass appeal doesn’t mean it has to be focus-grouped to death. [ER]

Record most likely to soundtrack a wake and bake: The War On Drugs, Lost In The Dream
Contrary to popular belief (or, well, their name), The War On Drugs have always been more of a Dylan-infused ambient-folk act (or a modern-day Dire Straits) than a stoner’s paradise. That’s changed with Lost In The Dream. The record blooms with sprawling songs—only one tune on the LP is under four minutesmeandering arrangements, molasses tempos, and plenty of heavy-lidded styles: slow-motion blues-funk, desolate psychedelic shimmers and glassy piano drone. Sure, Lost In The Dream works for sober folks, too—but for those times when some aural mind expansion is needed, The War On Drugs fits the bill. [AZ]

Best Electropop tag team: Röyksopp and Robyn, Do It Again
On Röyksopp and Robyn’s collaborative EP, Do It Again, the duo’s off-kilter pop sensibilities leads to unexpected moments, such as a Speak & Spell-sampling come-on and an abstract saxophone coda. But the pair’s musical smarts also lead to plenty of dance floor pleasures, like the candy-coated synth-pop of the title track or the hard-nosed Teutonic techno seduction “Sayit.” Best of all, Do It Again is unique within both artists’ catalogs, proving that in some cases, two electro heads are better than one. [AZ]

Best 80s Soul Asylum record: The Hold Steady, Teeth Dreams
Pre-“Runaway Train” and a conscious coupling with Winona Ryder, Soul Asylum was a pretty fantastic Minneapolis bar band bursting with underground rock piss and vinegar. Teeth Dreams echoes the frayed urgency of those days, thanks to its walls of ragtag guitars, pristine production from Nick Raskulinecz—which amplifies the band’s radio-friendly jangle—and plenty of Twin Cities-indebted lyrics. At times, Craig Finn’s craggy slam poetry delivery and crooked vocal syncopation even resemble Dave Pirner’s own askew, hoarse singing style. Teeth Dreams may have polarized Hold Steady fans, but its raucous nostalgia is hard to resist. [AZ]

Album best suited to ruin the holiday season: Andrew Jackson Jihad, Christmas Island
Since its inception, Phoenix’s Andrew Jackson Jihad has always struck a balance between off-putting absurdity and thought-provoking honesty. On its fifth album, Christmas Island, the band blurs the line even more, as vocalist Sean Bonnette juxtaposes the death of his grandfather next to bloodthirsty cannibals, all the while inserting tropes from hip-hop culture. It’s a record that’s fevered and honest, finding ways to crush sacred cows and make each off-kilter turn of phrase somehow feel affirming and joyous. [DA]

Best album that comes with an accompanying board game: Warfaring Strangers: Darkscorch Canticles
Chicago’s Numero Group has reissued material from literally hundreds of long forgotten bands, but its weirdest project might be Warfaring Strangers: Darkscorch Canticles, a double LP that collects material from 16 different occult-obsessed ’70s metal bands. The LP’s cover is absolutely riddled with sketches of the bands’ dumb names, like Stonehenge and Arrogance, and the records contained therein delve into themes of pagan sorcery, dragons, and necromancy. It’s pretty ridiculous, to say the least, but it’s even more ridiculous that, for a mere $80 more, you can buy a version of the record that comes packaged in its very own role-playing game. Cities Of Darkscorch not only invites players to roll multiple dice and screw each other over across fake countries and cities, but it ostensibly syncs up with the record, in that both are probably pretty great to smoke weed to. [ME]

Best new Cloud Nothings record: Cloud Nothings, Here And Nowhere Else
Cleveland three-piece Cloud Nothings are—save their pop-punky first record—one of the most consistently rocking bands working in the indie world today. The group’s latest LP, Here And Nowhere Else, does nothing to dispel that title, with tracks like “Now Here In” continuing the driving ethos of the band’s last excellent record, Attack On Memory. Recommended for fans of Fugazi, the Rust Belt, and teen angst that carries right on into the rest of your life. [ME]

Baddest bitchfest: Angel Olsen, Burn Your Fire For No Witness
A lot of the best records of 2014 have been released by fierce, take-no-prisoners characters, and Angel Olsen’s Burn Your Fire For No Witness is no exception. Though Olsen doesn’t seem all that imposing in photos—and her name is Angel, for crying out loud—Olsen’s “fuck you” attitude seeps into her tunes, even if low-key melodies and messages about being forgiven might seem to suggest otherwise. Live, Olsen’s even fiercer, with her stage stare suggesting she’s absolutely ready to throw down over any unnecessary audience chatter while she’s in the zone. [ME]

Best album by a Canadian band with the word “Fuck” in its name: Fucked Up, Glass Boys
Regardless of whether you like the band, you’ve got to admit that it’s impressive that Fucked Up—a Toronto punk act fronted by a big bald dude who often ends up bloody at shows—is so committed to making artistic and conceptual LPs. Glass Boys, the band’s latest LP, marks the group’s latest evolutionary step and, once again, reminds listeners that hardcore can be beautiful. It’s aggressive, yes, but also dense and alarmingly lush, with tracks like “Warm Change” and “Paper The House” leaning on classic rock notes and anthemic guitar sounds to make the manic mainstream. [ME]