2014 was an odd year - on one hand it seemed like the amount of notable releases were as plentiful as ever before while on the other, a lot of those releases ultimately did not live up to the hype. 2014 was the year a multitude of artists not only reserved for their follow up records but also seemed inclined to pack full of releases - artists like Sondre Lerche and Steve Gunn had more than one album out this year. Lerche offering up the soundtrack to the movie The Sleepwalker he wrote music in addition to return to original songs after his first ever live album while Steve Gunn pursuing two collaborations in addition to his own full length follow up to last year's brilliant Time Off. While every genre and music type was represented this year, 2014 in my humble opinion, was the year of the singer/songwriter. From releases from The New Pornographers, Cold Specks, Hiss Golden Messenger, and dozens more, the singer/songwriter's seemingly dominated this year delivering on the potential of their releases in a way that bands didn't seem quite able to. Despite this, it's been a year of surprises all across the board so without further ado here's my favorite releases of the year in no particular order.
Kevin Morby - Still Life
It's funny that in a year with not one, not two, but three albums from Steve Gunn that the album that most resembled the simple narratives of Time-Off was actually that of Los Angeles' based songwriter Kevin Morby's sophomore record Still Life. But where Gunn's lyricism sprang from a sort of deductive observationalism, Morby's seem like ready additions to the folk canon if not for their experimental twists. Where Gunn's folk rock rambles were aided by his jazz background, Morby relies on his psych and garage rock past to give his songs and extra bit of flavor. But Morby is more than Steve Gunn's foil; Morby's songwriting is undoubtedly his own - it's a free-flowing candor that doesn't detract from its moments of poignancy. Morby's lyrics are plainspoken but articulate; casual but intelligent and in moments like "The Jester, The Tramp, & The Acrobrat" or its callbacks elsewhere on the album ("The Dancer"), it's obvious Morby knows a thing or two about songwriting structure - able to build upon them in ways that are understatedly great.
Angel Olsen - Burn Your Fire For No Witness
There's no denying that last year's sneak peak of Olsen's sophomore album Burn Your Fire For No Witness in the form of the fiery, rock "Forgiven/Forgotten" got a lot of people amped up for the album but ultimately Olsen subverted expectations by making that the lead single - while relying far more frequently on electronic guitar on the album, it's not quite as incendiary as the single would lead listeners to believe. Olsen's still ruminates beautifully in her introspective heartfelt tunes. Burn Your Fire For No Witness is a patient album, especially in its second half as Olsen gets sparser and more intimate but there's little doubt of Olsen's songwriting or ability to make an effecting album. It's an album of arresting beauty where Olsen lays herself completely bare even amid growling guitars.
Landlady - Upright Behavior
When I first discovered Landlady at SXSW, I was so taken with their incredible live energy and commitment to audience participation in "Above My Ground" that pretty much everything else about the band failed to register. It's not until you sit down with Upright Behavior, the sophomore record for Adam Schatz and company that you realize just how much Landlady have going for them. In addition to having an impressive roster of musicians, and engaging live performances - Adam Schatz is a gifted songwriter. His topics are eclectic - from the universal feelings of loss and existential dread ("Above My Ground", "Dying Day") to the zany and specific ("Girl","X-Ray Machine") but what's pervasive in all of Schatz songs is that quiet need for connection, Landlady's songs are the kind that seem to force a sincere reaction out of you - not through any sort of introspection; the reaction seems surprisingly incidental. And yet, that's part of Schatz skill. His songs profiting from both a pop universality and also his occasionally comic wit. Landlady is a good a band as any to fight what was previously a losing battle against irony and cynicism. Landlady's songs, seem unaffected and unassuming but they stir something in you, drawing a wellspring of feelings in their tragically short run times and yet, it's 30 minutes of earnest response that might not have existed without them. Landlady are a band rebelling against a increasingly normalized response against sincerity but if Upright Behavior is any indication they just might win.
PHOX - PHOX
It says a lot about the Baraboo, WI septet and the trust they have in each other that they can make an album as understated but enjoyable as their self-titled full length debut. That's not surprising considering PHOX's members have known each other for years before shacking up together and forming a band but seven members is a lot of people to account for if you don't exactly know what to do with them. Luckily for PHOX this is never the case and their eclectic instrumentation - clarinet, banjo, flute, flugelhorn/trumpet, in addition to the standard guitar/bass/drums helps separate them from the pack. It's an album that resists the siren song of the Mumfordized folk that's become wildly popular. Each song has distinct melodies, unique narrative subjects, and utilizes its multitude of members ably. Monica Martin may be the group's mouthpiece but there's no doubts PHOX is a full band affair. PHOX spends a significant amount of time pursuing the melancholic but even then doesn't lose it's lightness of step and arrangement. They never reach off-putting levels of sadsackery, hitting just the right amount of emotion required. PHOX take the scenic approach to folk pop, rarely giving you those monumental, catchy moments right up front and it's a welcome reprieve from the in-your-face nature of your garden variety indie pop act.
Brooklyn Rider - The Brooklyn Rider Almanac
10 years after their initial formation, New York based indie classical string quartet Brooklyn Rider have settled into a comfortable groove of sorts: their release schedule is surprisingly consistent - more or less releasing an album a year since 2008's Passport. There's touring schedule And yet while falling into a comforting rhythm, Brooklyn Rider has strived and succeeded at avoiding to be predictable. Just take this year's release The Brooklyn Rider Almanac; the essence of what drives the foursome at it's epicenter, it's a release that simultaneously breaks down and relies on Brooklyn Rider's familiarity. "Morris Dance" and "Exit" introduce vocals to what has for the longest time been a mostly instrumental endeavor for the quartet while tracks like "Dig the Say" and "Necessary Henry" absolutely requires their years of rapport to navigate the intricate improvisatory layers. Normally building the album around an reinterpreted classical work, The Brooklyn Rider Almanac instead is formed from the contribution of all living composers who themselves sought inspiration for the Almanac's pieces from other artists/composers. The Brooklyn Rider Almanac is not only a strong, interesting experiment but also one that challenges and reintroduces the quartet's own mission statement - making for one of the most exciting and engaging albums they've released.
Lewis & Clarke - Triumvirate
Lou Rogai is nothing if not patient - it's reflected in everything that makes Lewis & Clarke worth listening to - their song's leisurely pace, the instrumental efficiency in the arrangements, the steady but surefootedness of Rogai's lyricism. It's virtually no surprise that the band's full length follow up would come years after their last; 7 if you're counting the time since Blasts Of Holy Birth, 5 from the sign of life that was 2009's 4 song Light Time EP. And in that time Rogai has grown more patient still. Triumvirate is a wide-sweeping sprawl of melancholic flourishes and meditative introspection. Triumvirate, Lewis & Clarke's third album, is a stunning work of beleaguered beauty; lush but complex in tone and overall mood; it's a record that contains a remarkably human breath. From it's melancholics flourishes to its meditative introspection, Triumvirate unfurls at a realistic rate of growth and decay. Nothing here is rushed - plodding casually through the philosophical brush instead of relying too heavily on the visceral, Rogai invoking emotion through a sort of learned response; he never directly appeals to the heart but engages each sense equally over the course of his long-form art-pop compositions until you find yourself responding in earnest.
Wye Oak - Shriek
While the latest record from Baltimore duo Wye Oak received its fair share of hype, it was arguably for wrong reasons. Lauded as the guitarless Wye Oak album, Shriek comes after quite a bit of Jenn Wasner dabbling in her other musical projects like Dungeonesse and Flock of Dimes and the influences from those fair more mainstream pop efforts have seeped into Wye Oak for the better. There wasn't anything wrong with Wye Oak's past incarnation as an indie rock band of note but the Wye Oak's synth pop renaissance provided a palette cleanser that Wasner has stated needed to continue to feel invested in the band and it's resulted in some of her most honest songwriting moments amid Shriek's dancier flights of fancy.
Sea Wolf - Song Spells No. 1: Cedarsmoke
It's a marvel that the latest Sea Wolf album, Song Spells No. 1: Cedarsmoke isn't actually considered to be a full blown effort by singer/songwriter Alex Brown Church. The album, the first in what is hopefully an ongoing collection of songwriting experiments pursued between official albums is basically meant to keep fans sated until Church and company have a "proper" full length effort prepped and potentially keep Church's songwriting chops sharp. Song Spells No. 1: Cedarsmoke achieves both those goals but also succeeds in being an incredible effort in its own right housing one of Alex Brown Church's strongest and most immediate songwriting efforts in "Young Bodies".
Sylvan Esso - Sylvan Esso
It sounded almost too much like a novelty - two folkies Amelia Randall-Meath of Mountain Man and Nicholas Sanborn who I had known from his run as a member of Megafaun's touring band team up for an electronic project. The only thing I didn't really count on was the versatility of Amelia's voice or the fact that Nicholas Sanborn is actually a skilled electronic producer. Sylvan Esso wasn't a project that was supposed to exist and yet, no is wishing it didn't. The duo, unlikely as they might seem on paper/without all the fact, creates a sort of charmingly easily accessible brand of electro-pop that it's hard not to get behind. With Sylvan Esso there's no gimmick, just the strength of the songs which happen to all be ridiculously good. It's a record that plays off of each person's obvious strengths and a few hidden ones for good measure while capitalizing on the duo's obvious creative chemistry and an undeniable urge to dance.
Blake Mills - Heigh Ho
While Blake Mills continues to make a name for himself a session musician everyone wants to work with and album credits continue to lengthen, this year saw the return of Mills to his solo project/main songwriting vehicle for the first time since his 2009 debut Break Mirrors and it's an album that's certainly worth the wait. Undeniably the more accessible record, it's ironic that it's also the record where Mills explores and experiments with various guitar tones and techniques far more openly. Mills has learned a thing or two about pop music to level up his songwriting and the results while lyrically broad - the magic comes from what Mills doesn't quite say, what the listener infers like on Fiona Apple featuring "Don't Tell Your Friends About Me". Mills has a talent that still percolates through his broadest moments like "Before It Fell" and "Curable Disease" which are contain the album's most impressive and effecting lyrical agility.
Tiny Ruins - Brightly Painted One
It's rather fitting that Brightly Painted One is the first album from Hollie Fullbrook's Tiny Ruins most Americans will hear. Based on the strength of lead track "Me at the Museum, You in the Wintergardens", it exemplifies everything Fullbrook has to offer - a stunning simplicity built around wonderfully evocative imagery and artful musical moments. Fullbrook is a breath of fresh air in the guise of a folk singer; finding inspiration in unexpected subjects and avoiding obvious tropes, Brightly Painted One is a scenic amble with an ever-changing focus but whose effect remains wholly the same. Fullbrook and her band are the only constant - an angel-voiced Scheherazade navigating the listener around mountains, across seas, and through time with a surprisingly fluidity and lilting gait.
Adult Jazz - Gist Is
When people listen to Adult Jazz - their knee-jerk reaction might be to compare them to the Dirty Projectors. It makes sense to an extent: they both strive to create music that is simply more than a catchy melody. It's music that stimulates the senses but challenges the listener and the performer alike. But the comparison distracts exactly from what Adult Jazz has going for it. Gist Is, a debut that is equal parts auspicious and criminally underrated, Adult Jazz prove themselves as precocious innovators. Take album opener "Hum", first an a capella introduction to the distinct vocals of frontman/songwriter Harry Burgess before undergoing an organic metamorphosis. It's an introduction to the band that's surprisingly apt - rarely does the Leeds four-piece sit on a single thought but neither do they haphazardly rush from one idea to the next; Adult Jazz are both restrained and restless; their creative flow resembling a tangent more than a leap but without all the clutter. Adult Jazz are many things - experimentalists with a meticulously polished creative vision; musicians with an inherent desire for chaos and subversion of expectations. There's no doubt a natural poppiness to Adult Jazz's songs and yet they rebel against that very notion in both theory and practice. It's an album of considerable thought and forethought that also embraces a improvisatory stream of consciousness; it's polished and precise but at times purposefully rough and effectively human. Adult Jazz is a band of contradictions but those same contradictions are both what give the band its creative power and sets them and their debut album Gist Is apart from all the rest.
Elizabeth & The Catapult - Like It Never Happened
Elizabeth Ziman is a mainstay in New York City's singer/songwriter circle and with her third album Like It Never Happened it's not hard to see why. Ziman manages to perfectly balance a sense of playful ease with honest and effective lyricism in a way that's refreshing in absolutely every single way. A pop aficionado, Ziman's most winsome moments both on Like It Never Happened and in general are when she's able to imbue her personality into her songs. Like on the titular "Like It Never Happened" where Ziman offers up the wry lyrics with a rather straight-faced delivery that makes it doubly enjoyable. Ziman's strength comes from her unique approach to the singer/songwriter genre - she's a purveyor of love songs but there's no sense of whimpering inactivity from Ziman. She's a woman of action, aware of her own romantic weaknesses and pursues the for the narrative mileage without letting herself be solely defined by them. Like It Never Happened's appeal is that even at it's most poppy, it never comes off as cutesy. It's a sincere record where Ziman shows off the best parts of herself; owning her personal weaknesses in a way that make them quite flattering without her having to spin them as such. From it's arrangements to Ziman's shifting instrumental focus (guitar versus piano), Like It Never Happened shows Elizabeth & The Catapult at her very best. Everything is polished but not to the point of being overly produced and it's a collection of songs that really demonstrates what Ziman's capable of.
Kishi Bashi - Lighght
When K. Ishibashi decided to embark on a solo career after countless years as an ensemble player for artists like of Montreal and Regina Spektor he did so with pretty much everyone's blessing. In a lot of ways his initial releases (his inaugural Room For Dream EP and debut full length album 151a) were made with what he learned from his collaborators balancing practiced patience with bursts of unheralded ingenuity. On Lighght, Kishi Bashi overcame any notion of the sophomore by leaning more into his influences than on his previous releases - jazz fusion and progressive rock explode Kishi Bashi's established cinematic scope with pyrotechnic grandeur. K.'s straight forward pop efforts "Philosophize In It! Chemicalize With It!" and "Carry On Phenomenon" are almost infuriatingly infectious while other songs "Bittersweet Genesis For Him AND Her" and "Q&A" flourish from their emotional resonance. It's an album leagues stronger than his already superb debut that imbues the studio work with Kishi Bashi's intensely affable live energy and ever-growing technical prowess. It's an album that only Ishibashi himself could've predicted he could make but one where the amount of hard work is evident despite it's effortless delivery.
SoftSpot - MASS
Brooklyn art-rock trio SoftSpot are not a singles band. That's not to say they're albums don't possess standalone songs on them but SoftSpot are a band with a considerable knack for the album medium. The treat it with a sacredness that pretty much ensures that they'll be rewarded for their piety. SoftSpot's debut was such a fully realized effort with a total cohesion of ideas, for their follow up it was never a question of whether it would be so; merely what would those ideas be and how would the band implement them? On their sophomore record MASS, SoftSpot dial back the intensity of Ensō in order to create a work that stands separate from it. MASS is far more languorous record than Ensō and yet, there's no denying its ideas gestate far more quickly. On MASS, SoftSpot may condense their gestation of ideas but not its flow relying far less on sprawling track lengths than before. It's surprisingly at odds with SoftSpot's deceleration but fitting ultimate making their more vivacious efforts like "You/Yours" and "Crosswinds" much more effective. There's no question SoftSpot has ideas in spades but MASS proves sometimes all you really have to do with them is let them simmer.
Sondre Lerche - Please
One of the most exciting things about following the career of Norwegian singer/songwriter Sondre Lerche is how absolutely committed the man is towards finding new ways to tackle pretty universal topics. That in a nutshell is what Lerche brings to his approach towards pop music - it's how Lerche can, after a decade-long career still dip into the well of love songs but still put out something that seems fresh. On Please, Lerche's seventh studio album, Lerche takes his one chance to handle something as less inclusive as his divorce and manages to imbue in it not only a sense of broad appeal but avoid the usual trapping of a break up record in the same stroke. Lerche doesn't allow himself the luxury of a pity party on Please, nor does it pretend that he hasn't gone through something life-altering but true to form, he finds a way that's better than the expected to reach that sense of commonality - by creating a record that's downright celebratory. A celebratory of his flaws, her flaws, our flaws in general; Lerche's not pulling any punches but he's mature enough not to play the blame game and in that regard he's able to play off of and play with his undeniable charm and avoid the dangers of sentimentality.
Hundred Waters - The Moon Rang Like A Bell
When Hundred Waters unleashed their debut self-titled record into the world, it was an unfathomable work of art; completely separate from the notion of genre with an artistic vision that was light years ahead of what was currently happening in the musical industry on the most epic of scales. So when Hundred Waters announced their intention not only to follow it up but rather quickly doing so - it was anyone's guess what the hell that would even sound like. How could Hundred Waters build on a sound that was so absolutely unique and yet incredibly difficult to pin down? And yet, Hundred Waters managed to do so. The Moon Rang Like A Bell while leaning far more heavily into their almost all of the various genre slashes you might use to describe their sound - electronic, art, rock, pop while still not entirely adhering to any of them. Their sophomore record continues a sort of creative narrative you weren't entirely sure Hundred Waters were creating until the work emerged - they've tightened up, lasered in, and ironed all the seams - the result is a work that explores Hundred Waters' interests - their grand artistic moments even grander - hushed and solemn but unfettered; their pop leanings more leaned into. It's a work no one could have predicted they'd make and yet, fits so perfectly among their previous album that demonstrates their ability to channel the magic of their collective creativity as they see fit. Their fully realized debut wasn't just the alignment of their creative energies, it was only a peek into the hivemind and a benchmark for which they could easily surpass. The Moon Rang Like A Bell leaves you with only one question at it's quietly satisfying conclusion: what the hell are Hundred Waters going to do now?
Pattern Is Movement - Pattern Is Movement
On their sophomore record All Together, Philly experimental pop duo Pattern Is Movement planted many of the seeds for what would become their self-titled record and yet, it's a record that probably wouldn't exist as it does now if not given the time they put between it and the 2008 record. Quietly inspired by hip hop & R&B in the past (both singer/keyboardist Andrew Thiboldeaux and drummer Chris Ward come from hip hop backgrounds), Pattern Is Movement is the record where they let those influences really come through while avoiding treating it like too much of an affect. From Ward's J Dilla inspired drumming to the subtle use of autotune on Thiboldeaux's normally unaffected vocals, Pattern Is Movement lean heavy into their R&B roots but through their pure reverance of the genre as well as the reliance on their own ideas, Pattern Is Movement comes off as a properly honest effort and less like a part of the culture-biting trend.
A Spotify playlist featuring full streams of all the albums on this can be reached here. Thanks for reading~
Damien Jurado - Brothers And Sisters Of The Eternal Son
Frankie Cosmos - Zentropy
Friend Roulette - Grow Younger EP
Grandma Sparrow - Grandma Sparrow & His Piddletractor Orchestra
Mirage - Blood For the Return EP
Saintseneca - Dark Arc
Salt Cathedral - OOM VELT EP
Steve Gunn - Way Out Weather
White Reaper - White Reaper EP
Wild Beasts - Present Tense
Will Stratton - Gray Lodge Wisdom