Welcome to Listmas Day Five, where we’re finally leaving the gridlock of the charts and song-by-song analysis for the open territories of entire albums. As with Listmases long, long ago, the albums here had to meet the nebulous qualifier of being my “favorite”, and I realize that label’s subjective as all get out. It’s not meant as an all-inclusive ranking, but I feel like the scope is generous this year. In a field of eleven candidates, we have dense, dreamy R&B, and punks whose best songs clock in under 2 minutes. Steve Hyden, one of my favorite music writers, once commented that his “favorites of the year” meant he had to mean he was a obsessed with each at some point in the last 12 months, and I like that definition. So, here are my eleven obsessions; I’d love to hear yours.
11. Modern Baseball – You’re Gonna Miss It All
The kinda-emo-revival of the last two years has led to a slew of bands coming out swinging, and Modern Baseball’s one of my favorite of the bunch. A poppy emo record with a folk streak, You’re Gonna Miss It All anchors zippy punk tunes like “Broken ATM Machine” and the acoustic meditations of “Potholes” with small-scale anthems like “Charlie Black” and “Your Graduation”. YGMIA‘s fairly typical “20something writing my life” wallflower lyrics get a boost from these guys being pretty insightful and damn funny once you get them talking (see: “Sharp as a tack/but in the sense that you’re not smart/Just a prick”). Sardonic wit and neurotic crush songs are half the fight, but Modern Baseball can write some sad bastard shit to go with it, and You’re Gonna Miss It All is a winning balance of the two. It takes talent to write a song about an asshole while realizing you’re one, too. And being okay with that.
10. D’Angelo – Black Messiah
How dare this motherfucker, right? Here it is, mid-December, and everyone’s already finalizing year-end retrospectives, and he has to drop an album 14 years in the making with barely a week’s notice. And the best/worst part is that Black Messiah actually justifies it’s own sudden madness; it’s an immaculately made R&B album that’s enjoyed best when you can take time, dig deep, and just listen to it. Sure, it has surface thrills (see: “1000 Deaths”, “Really Love”, “Another Life”), but especially in the back half, it shines with time. The thing’s a great listen, but doubles as an encyclopedia of R&B and certain strains of Black consciousness. And, like it needs to be said, D’Angelo sounds phenomenal. I’ve been kicking this one around all week, and it justified creating it’s own place in my favorites. Imagine what would happen with more time.
9. Tove Lo – Queen of the Clouds
“Habits” put Tove Lo on the pop map, but Queen of the Clouds is an impressive record of why she should stay. There’s an enforced narrative about a failed romance (in three arcs: “The Sex”, “The Love”, “The Pain”), and the clubbed up synthpop in each one bubbles over with size and color. It’s expansive and maximalist without being overblown, like Gaga’s earlier albums, and Tove Lo’s personality sometimes outshines the synths in a great way. From chasing all the young dudes to describing herself as “On the good days, I am charming as fuck” to the stoned, Twinky slow dance of “Habits”, she establishes herself as a believable, delightfully vulgar, endearing personality. Queen of the Clouds‘ elevator pitch is basically “1989 on HBO” in concept, and what I desperately wanted the latter to be in execution.
8. The Roots – …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin
The Roots’ latest trip down the rabbit hole of experimental, nihilist, commentary-and-story-heavy hip-hop is their weirdest and darkest yet. Gotta balance a day job of playing under Jimmy Fallon lip-sync battles somehow. Yet still grimer and more abstract that undun, Cousin is art-y and high-concept to an almost unfriendly degree; Black Thought disappears for stretches, it’s heavy on samples and interludes (especially for a 30 minute album), and its longer songs almost drift apart in their own malaise. And I’m still fascinated by it. The record’s able to set atmosphere remarkably well, it’s lively when it wants to be, and Black Thought/Dice Raw/Greg Porn/etc. strike with surgical precision when they step up to the mic. …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin would have probably been better received if it told a little more than it showed, but it’s still solid, and I like an album that trusts its audience.
7. Candy Hearts – All The Ways You Let Me Down
I suppose I’m just a Candy Hearts lifer at this point, but if they keep cracking out records this easy to like, it’s hard not to be. All The Ways You Let Me Down is slightly more candy than heart, but it packs a hell of a compact punch, and it’s had more staying power in the colder months than I thought it would. The first half of it or so is still an impressive run of shiny pop-punk, and the slower numbers play to the band’s sense of melody and likeably clunky lyrics. “Michigan”, “Something’s Missing”, “Coffee With My Friends”, and the title track are not just some of the band’s best work, but some of the year’s brightest pop rock, to boot. Candy Hearts might have been let down, but that doesn’t mean they have to be one, themselves.
6. FKA twigs – LP1
Twigs took all of her EP buzz as a fringe, Art&B singer, and pushed everything forward with LP1. It’s a headphone album in the best way: immersive soundscapes, gymnastic melodies, and vocals that manage to be sighing, anxious, and dreamy at the same time. “Two Weeks” and “Pendulum” are standout exemplars, but LP1 is best as an end-to-end listen, where it is simply one of the year’s best daydreaming albums. Twigs is a compelling performer, and LP1 is a great statement of purpose.
5. Lana Del Rey – Ultraviolence
This hasn’t really come up on the site, but I became a reformed Lana hater about a year ago, when she defined herself better. Born to Die‘s biggest weakness was not knowing how to present itself; I couldn’t tell if Lana was fucking with us, or playing her bullshit as truth. With song titles like “Fucked My Way Up To the Top”, “Sad” and “Money Power Glory”, Ultraviolence reveals that Lana is somehow doing both and maybe neither, making the enterprise work much better in the meantime. Of course, it helps that Ultraviolence is a better made album from the word “go”; Lana sounds better over cinematic, psychedelic-tinged California rock songs than she did among 808s and canned strings. Her persona’s better formed, too: her chaotic, cruel fuck-ups are more nuanced than Born To Die‘s paperdoll lolitas. The best song here is “Shades of Cool”, the best James Bond theme Sam Smith can never write. I take it all back, Lana. You can be America’s girl.
4. Sharon Van Etten – Are We There
Are We There is an album that’s felt as much as it’s listened to. In another decade, it would be a confessional folk album, or maybe a slowburning country one, but in 2014, it’s chilly indie rock; a full-band record built on echoing guitars and piano, topped with Etten’s aching singer-songwriter vocals. Even during its sturdiest moments, there’s a fragility to the album, like it could fall apart if pushed. And Etten gets pushed damn hard; almost every note and word communicates some sort of sadness or heartbreak (even when she jokes, it’s like grinning through tears). But she stands resolute. When she sings “Break my legs so I won’t walk to you/Cut my tongue so I can’t talk to you/Burn my skin so I can’t feel you/Stab my eyes so I can’t see you” on “Your Love Is Killing Me”, it’s a focused mantra, not a plea. Are We There could be a bit much in lesser hands, but for Etten, it’s the best and most realized she’s ever sounded.
3. Joyce Manor – Never Hungover Again
How long’s an album have to be to be an album? I’m only asking because Joyce Manor seem to have made Never Hungover Again with a stopwatch in the studio; this thing rips through ten songs in nineteen minutes. And what’s remarkable is that the band stuffs each song to the gills: there’s barely a moment to singalong before the band’s jumped onto a new verse or a surprisingly intricate guitar riff. Your only choice is to pound the table and scream “Again!” as the song screeches to a halt. Epic “In the Army Now” manages two full verses, a chorus, a bridge, an extended guitar jam, and an outro in full in under two and a half minutes, while “Heart Tattoo” is a blink-182 1994-2000 compilation in under two minutes. It’s an addictive little sing-along that pulls some heart strings on the way (see “In the Army Now”‘s dueling epic “Falling In Love Again”–an indulgent 2:28). How long’s an album need to be? Long enough.
2. St. Vincent – St. Vincent
St. Vincent has spent three albums only going up, and her brand of indie rock is in its purest form on her stylized, future-cult leader self-titled record. It’s an assured work that builds on the dead-eyed, clinical but hysteric madness last seen on Strange Mercy, with a dash of synthy paranoia to boot. Even something as smooth as the brassy bounciness of “Digital Witness” is slightly off-kilter and prone to fits of shrieking cacophony, and tender ballad “I Prefer Your Love” has a dark undercurrent hiding beneath a sunny chorus. St. Vincent is willfully obtuse at times, but it’s hard to deny anything as immediate as “Birth in Reverse”, that glorious riff halfway through “Huey Newton”, or the subtle panicking of “Rattlesnake”. Even when the joke is grim and it seems like St. Vincent’s laughing to herself (just imagine “severed crossed fingers”), it feels like not getting it is your fault, not hers. She’s just more advanced.
1. Against Me! – Transgender Dysphoria Blues
This album came out in January. It set the bar then, and I wouldn’t feel justified putting anything else here. Laura Jane Grace’s widely publicized transition drives this record, but even stripped of the story, this is a propulsive, captivating, emphatic record that roars with life and kicks the shit out of damn near everything that comes across it. It’s stacked with anthems, from fist in the air “True Trans Soul Rebel” and the gut-wrenching title track to the tear jerker “Paralytic States” and triumphantly defiant closer “Black Me Out”. There’s not a single bum track here, and most of these would be highlights on any other album. It’s already become a personal favorite, and a no-brainer for my favorite album of 2014.
December 16th: Worst Hits of the Year (10-6)
December 17th: Worst Hits of the Year (5-1)
December 18th: Best Hits of the Year (10-6)
December 19th: Best Hits of the Year (5-1)
December 20th: Favorite Albums of the Year
December 21st: The Gibby Fifty–50 Favorite Songs
December 22nd: Odds and Ends