Way Too Indie’s Best Albums of 2014 (So Far)
I have to hand it to music critics, myself included to an extent: this year, we’ve become masters of overhyping albums that really aren’t all that great. A painful reminder of this trend comes around this time of year, since it’s already halfway over: music writers ask, “Where did the time go?” and answer this inquiry with lists of their favorite albums to be released so far during the year. Many readers who are constantly immersed in the music blogosphere learn nothing new from these lists, since the same group of albums is discussed for reasons that describe nothing about their sound. Rather, opinions on albums that are actually pretty weak are shrouded in obtuse references and pretentious ideology, guarding a questionable opinion in words that make it sound reasonable.
Way Too Indie seeks to write about how music viscerally and genuinely affects listeners rather than discussing abstract topics not wholly connected to the sound. For this reason, we’ve also chosen to publish a list of our favorites of the year so far, with the intention of discussing why they sound good, not what makes them philosophical masterpieces. This is an unranked list; it doesn’t seek to create competition for a top spot. Instead, it aims to point out a group of genuinely engaging, moving albums that we think listeners will genuinely enjoy. It also serves to expose readers to music they may not yet be aware of, and to introduce new art to our audience. We’ll be thrilled if you like the albums we’ve gathered here, but we’d also be more than happy to hear dissenting opinions. Please remember while reading this list: music is a purely subjective experience, and the goal of a music writer should merely be to spread the joy of listening, not to dictate what is good and bad taste.
In alphabetical order, here are our favorite albums of the year so far. We hope we can convince you to give these a listen.
Way Too Indie’s Best Albums of 2014 (So Far)
Angel Olsen – Burn Your Fire For No Witness
Angel Olsen caught a small handful of critics’ attention with her early releases of barren, haunting lo-fi folk. On Burn Your Fire for No Witness, elements of this sound still abound, but her new full band setup has allowed her to expand into previously uncovered territory. Burn is punchier, thornier, and often louder than anything in Olsen’s past; these qualities endow its lovelorn lyrics, which are a bit craftier than the words so often employed to describe these emotions, with a viable weapon to strike listeners’ ears and hearts.
The album’s first four minutes showcase Burn‘s two extremes with two different songs. The brief, percussion-less introductory track “Unfucktheworld” is a restricted, major-key, lo-fi folk tune which never once swears. It leads directly into “Forgiven/Forgotten”, in every way the opposite of “Unfucktheworld”: a bombastic percussive stomp is accompanied by equally forceful guitars and aching vocals. The album thereafter occupies either of these two states, treading the folk path on the breathtaking seven-minute “White Fire” and many of the less memorable ending tracks, and remaining electric on highlights such as “Hi-Five” and the album’s midsection.
It’s the midsection that I keep coming back to, actually: the three-punch blow of “High and Wild”, “Lights Out”, and “Stars” is matched by few albums I’ve heard. Angel Olsen’s breathy, almost faceless musing over the first of these tracks’ bouncing pianos and twangy guitars is instantly gripping. As the song progresses, Olsen’s vocals become far more emotive and engaging, and it goes out on a bang of low-pitched guitar lines, pounding percussion, and hyperactive pianos. “Lights Out” calms down thereafter, but is no less chilling: its cathedral-sized, pain-laced electric guitar strums accentuate Olsen’s story. The subtle shift in feel from the verses to the chorus in this song is devastating, and amplifies what might be the album’s most memorable and relatable lyric: “Some days all you need is one good thought strong in your mind.” The guitar-solo-that’s-not-quite-a-solo ending this song slowly introduces the ache embodied by follow-up “Stars”: “I think you like to see me lose my mind/you treat me like a child, I’m angry, blind” is maybe the most devastating couplet on record this year, matched only by the second verse’s “Well you could change my mind with just a smile.” The defeated guitars and PJ Harvey-esque vocal mannerisms opening the song lead to a harrowing but triumphant chorus, and Olsen rarely sounds more in control of her emotions. At the end of it all, it sounds like the Fire is slowly being put out.
Ava Luna – Electric Balloon
“Everybody says we’re talkin’/about the new sweet thang!” Becca Kaufman chirps on “Sears Roebuck M&Ms”, the inexplicably titled second track on Ava Luna’s sophomore effort Electric Balloon. She’s wrong, though: Ava Luna are the new sweet thang, and very few people are talking about them. Their Facebook page has fewer than six thousand likes, a testament to their relatively small audience. If more people heard Electric Balloon, this crowd would probably expand rapidly. With a sound that’s dangerously similar to supremely successful acts like Deerhoof, Dirty Projectors, and even Pixies, Ava Luna skillfully walk the line between blatantly copying their forebears and invigoratingly coalescing their styles into one savory, idiosyncratic blend.
“Daydream” opens Electric Balloon with a punk frenzy and throaty snarl ripped straight from Doolittle‘s recipe book, but sounds fresh and exciting thanks to its off-kilter rhythms and free-spirit female backing vocals. “Sears Roebuck M&Ms” is a funky strut down Deerhoof lane, but its alternating playful and armed vocals are an entirely more entrapping animal. “Crown” slowly expands from a self-described “nervous soul” jam into a bile-laced assortment of Dirty Projectors-like female vocal harmonies and vocalist Carlos Hernandez’ crazed wails of “I need a man!” These are merely the album’s first three tracks: in this short time, they brightly display the tinkering with their ancestors’ sounds that continues throughout Electric Balloon‘s funky, unpredictable, scattershot, addicting forty minutes.
For a one-song sampling of what makes Electric Balloon such an adventure, check “Plain Speech”: a ridiculously funky, arhythmic guitar line leads to vocals so intense you can envision the saliva shooting out from between Hernandez’ teeth, continuing for long enough to make the transition to its fuzzy, soul-indebted chorus 100% unexpected and successful. The song veers back and forth between these extremes at the most surprising times, and in the most unpredictable ways. It’s equal parts beautiful, riling, raucous, and skillful, and attests to the simultaneous oddity and spontaneity that make Electric Balloon such a thrill ride.
Cloud Nothings – Here and Nowhere Else
“I’m losing it, but what do I care?” shouts Cloud Nothings’ vocalist and chief songwriter Dylan Baldi during “Giving Into Seeing”, the fifth track on the band’s fourth and best album Here and Nowhere Else. This line briefly summarizes the entirety of the album’s lyrical themes: in just over half an hour, Baldi makes it clear that he has, for once, succeeded at moving past a shattered relationship. It’s Cloud Nothings’ most optimistic album to date, but it never sacrifices the bleakness and noise of their breakout Attack on Memory.
Here and Nowhere Else delves further into the berserk, noisy catharsis suggested by its predecessor. The percussion on this album is technically godly, the guitar work often abruptly shifts from melodic and gorgeous to extremely abrasive and dissonant, the tempo is rarely stable throughout the course of a song, and the veil of darkness shrouding Attack on Memory has been lightened. Lead single “I’m Not Part of Me” is thrilling in its sunnier take on Attack‘s already thrilling sound; “No Thoughts” is a Nevermind-reminiscent garage rock joy; “Quieter Today” is a masterclass in tempo and dynamic shifts.
Above all, though, these cathartic punk anthems are just catchy. Even “Psychic Trauma”, the album’s noisiest and most jagged tune, is undeniably poppy. “My mind is always wasted listening to you,” Baldi muses during this song’s chorus; luckily for fans, the exact opposite of this statement holds true while hearing Here and Nowhere Else.
How to Dress Well – “What Is This Heart?”
“What Is This Heart?” (yes, the quotation marks are part of the title) was heavily hyped by a small crowd of critics before being shot down by a larger group upon its release. There’s no denying that it lacks consistency — the 80s acoustics of “Repeat Pleasure” doesn’t belong on the same album as the glitchy trip-hop/R&B of “Very Best Friend” — and that it’s got a few unenjoyable tunes, but when this album succeeds, it strikes unforgettably.
Ignore the painful mistake that is “2 Years On”, this album’s opener, and you’re led to “What You Wanted” and “Face Again”, two deeply affecting R&B tunes with darkly crafted edges. Tracks like “A Power” and the almost groovy “Very Best Friend” continue in this path, the best of “WITH?”‘s several directions, excusing the cheesiness of a song like “Precious Love.” It’s “Words I Can’t Remember” that best attests to what this album can achieve when it’s properly focused: its fusion of vocal glitches, smoky synths, and haunting vocals draw out emotions that are bound to captivate listeners. That this album hosts enough tracks with this power excuses the assortment of questionable moments scattered throughout, and demands at least a few listens, if not more.
Hundred Waters – The Moon Rang Like a Bell
The Moon Rang Like a Bell is probably the year’s most subtle album so far. It dabbles in the minimal art-rock territory that the xx opened in 2009, and does so with a breathy, entrapping flair. Primarily vocal-based tracks like “Murmurs” and “Broken Blue” are held together by a relatively bare, but not quite absent, set of pianos, synths, and percussion. Elsewhere, soaring tunes like “Cavity”, “Xtalk”, and “[Animal]” emerge, expertly switching between subdued and more forward states in an artful way.
Even more impressive than how well these tunes are crafted is vocalist and lyricist Nicole Miglis’ use of emotion. These are all songs that are obviously near and dear to her heart, yet she never drowns listeners in pain. Both her voice and her band’s music are structured so that it would be impossible not to innately connect with the feelings presented; in other words, the music and the words get equal weight, yet the volume of these songs never overwhelms. A great example of this is “Down From the Rafters”, a song that adds and subtracts sonic layers often, and does so without muddling the message Miglis is sending. “Every morning’s like a climb from the rafters,” sighs Miglis in one of more than a few moments of heartfelt honesty. This trait is possibly Moon‘s most endearing quality: it’s an album that stares you straight in the face and tells you how it feels, both with words and with sounds. If you don’t hear what Hundred Waters is saying, you might just want to listen more closely — it’s there.
Kelis – Food
It’s impossible to discuss anything Kelis has done since 2003 without some mention of “Milkshake.” It’s a song she still plays live, one that she calls “super fun” and isn’t embarrassed about. It’s a great song, but it’s not at all representative of where she’s at now. Food, her most recent release, is a neo-soul album infused with brass instruments, funk rhythms, and jazz sparks, but it’s no less enjoyable than “Milkshake.” In fact, some of her most tender moments to date are captured here.
Food is Kelis’ first record for an independent label, Ninja Tune; as such, only she and her two collaborators (as compared to the vast array of names who contributed to, say, Flesh Tone) control what’s here. With TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek and composer/arranger Todd Simon at her side, Kelis commands an army of emotive, unguarded sounds. Smoky soul tunes such as “Breakfast”, “Floyd”, and “Runner” directly impact receptive ears; riskier, less traditional tunes such as “Fish Fry” and “Cobbler” are equally as captivating. Kelis treads quite a few paths on Food, and often with a great deal of success: after she claims “We got this!” on opener “Jerk Ribs”, she spends the rest of the album proving it.
Makthaverskan – II
“Fuck you, fuck you!” To hear a woman whose first language isn’t English bitterly wailing this statement over roaring, windy guitars and cutting percussion is a fantastic way to start an album. II, the second (duh) album from these five Swedes, instantly declares that it doesn’t give a damn about subtlety. No instrument or lyric is ever restricted: over thirty-three minutes, Makthaverskan present an exercise in bluntness.
II is crystal clear in every way imaginable. The arrangements and production are near-perfect, and every instrument receives the proper space. The guitars range from atmospheric to pummeling, yet never lose their new wave speckle; the drums are gripping even at their most blurry; Maja Milner’s vocals cut through any and all instrumentals that her band provides.
Milner’s vocals are the true clincher here. A small sampling of her lyrics gets the point across: “It’s not me you’re dreaming of!” (“Asleep”); “Let me take off/this shirt and we’ll make love” (“Slowly Sinking”); “You outshine them all!” (“Outshine”); “Fuck you for fucking me/when I was seventeen!” (“No Mercy”). That last line is a great representation of what makes II so excellent: despite English being her second language, Milner chooses her simple words precisely, and sings them more clearly than a good number of native speakers. Their fierceness matches the intensity of her band, ensuring that II won’t be forgotten any time soon.
St. Vincent – St. Vincent
St. Vincent, real name Annie Clark, is arguably the most blogged about artist of the year so far, although she’s been doing this for a while. It’s incredible to see how far she’s come since her timid, eerie 2007 debut Marry Me; that album, a doe-eyed collection of oddball love songs, couldn’t have possibly predicted the confidence and otherworldliness of her self-titled fourth effort. It’s an album that received enough attention to earn her a musical guest slot on SNL, and one the likes of which we may never encounter again.
“Rattlesnake” is an excellent choice to begin this journey: its Atari percussion and wobbly, funky synths immediately declare that this is an extraterrestrial album, and it’s feet-shaking guitar riff builds to a star-shooting solo that’s as enthralling as an interplanetary tour. “Birth in Reverse” follows, absolutely exploding into the new world crafted by its predecessor: it’s easily the most technical guitar work she’s ever showcased, and it’s probably the most electrifying song of both her career and the year thus far. Songs like “Digital Witness”, “Bring Me Your Loves” and “Every Tear Disappear” continue this fucked-up funk stutter, each one proudly displaying the stamp of former tourmate David Byrne’s influence while thrilling in a way that only Clark is capable of.
Indeed, St. Vincent is Clark’s most singular album to date. It’s stuffed to the brim with ideas and oddities, all of which succeed mightily in their missions. “Regret” and “Psychopath” show what happens when a weirdo like Clark tries to write straightforward pop songs; “I Prefer Your Love” is one of the most heartbreaking fusions of theatricality and slow-burning tenderness on record.
Of course, though, this album can’t be discussed without mentioning “Huey Newton”, the song that best represents everything that makes Annie Clark so great: a hazy, haunting set of light synths and pulsing bass deftly builds tension, ensuring that the song’s shift into near-metal, horrifyingly heavy guitar-shuffling territory is fully unexpected. These dramatic and sudden transitions are nothing new for Clark, an established guitar master; that she pulls it off the best she ever has on this album only hints at just how stupidly engaging St. Vincent is.
Sylvan Esso – Sylvan Esso
From the ashes of Megafaun rise Sylvan Esso. But you needn’t know that to enjoy this duo’s self-titled debut: their music is catchy enough to need no introduction. The folk- and minimal-influenced electropop they advance is reserved enough to emotionally bind listeners, and poppy enough to jam out to. “Could I Be” is a hypnotic, translucent tune that’s as chill as it is meaty; “Dress” undercuts peppiness with hip-hop groove and flow.
“Coffee” is the one you might’ve heard; it’s a pretty good summary of why Sylvan Esso are so engaging. The vocals on the song are heartfelt and warming, yet are never overwhelming; this description can also be applied to the instrumental part. Together, the two parts intertwine to form a very hooky whole, a goal achieved often on Sylvan Esso. Good luck breaking away from this one.
TEEN – The Way and Color
Earlier in this article, I discussed how St. Vincent’s music sounds like it was delivered here from another planet, a description commonly applied to her sound. TEEN, maybe the only band whose music bears any similarity to the 2014 version of Annie Clark, also sounds like they’re sending their signals from another plane of existence. Perhaps the reason both these acts display this quality is that music runs in their blood; Clark is the niece of guitar-based jazz beasts Tuck & Patti, and TEEN’s three Lieberson sisters (bassist Boshra AlSaadi is the only of TEEN’s four members who isn’t from the family) are the offspring of famed, legendary opera composer Peter Lieberson.
Skillful arrangements and astute melodies flow naturally throughout TEEN’s sophomore effort, The Way and Color. The Lieberson sisters’ genetics endow them with the innate ability to compose surprisingly catchy, perpetually flowering capsules of R&B-influenced psych pop. Chromatic synths mesh with Kristina “Teeny” Lieberson’s (hence the band’s name) incredibly dynamic, all-fitting voice, with AlSaadi’s bass and the remaining sisters’ vocal harmonies adding the necessary final flourishes. The result achieved is equal parts trippy and tuneful, and is pretty difficult to turn a deaf ear to.
Songs like “Rose 4 U” and “Tied Up, Tied Down” are both fun and eccentric, while other songs like “More Than I Ask For” and “All The Same” are a bit more contemplative. “Breathe Low and Deep” is its own universe, its second half of psychedelic synths and masked brass escalating towards a climax that feels infinite. There’s also “Sticky”, a song melodic and blissful enough that it can be easy to miss its intensely personal discussion of abortion and motherhood. Once the words are clear, the song becomes even more colorful; even before that, though, The Way and Color is vivid and unflinching.
tUnE-yArDs – Nikki Nack
Nikki Nack is tUnE-yArDs’ Contra: just as Vampire Weekend’s second album had people wondering if the band had become too eccentric for their own good, Merrill Garbus’ third album under her kooky moniker turned away some fans with its supreme quirkiness. But look at her songwriting name: the way it’s spelled, with those alternating caps, declares its idiosyncrasies immediately. What else would you expect?
Were you looking for another w h o k i l l? No, Nikki Nack isn’t as fiery and confrontational as its predecessor, but expecting another album of that caliber was your first mistake. Instead, Nikki Nack is an indulgent, overwhelming, childish slurry of various berserk elements. Bassist Nate Brenner is no less present here, the percussion is more fittingly awkward than ever, and Garbus’ vocals haven’t lost their “oh my god who sings like THAT?” quality. What’s new and odd to some listeners is the near complete lack of Garbus’ signature ukulele in favor of warbly, borderline cheesy synths.
Really, the album borders on the edge of unbridled corniness throughout its entire run; that it never crosses the line is a huge factor in its success. First single “Water Fountain” is a prime example of how stupid this album can get, but it’s just so catchy. “Sink-O” throws just about everything possible in listeners’ faces, and its often inane lyrics add to the juvenile joy. Yet there’s a pretty hefty one that sneaks in there: “If I went up to your door you wouldn’t let me in/so don’t say you don’t judge by the color of skin.” For all its deliberate immaturity, Nikki Nack really throws some important topics in the mix, as made clear by tunes like “Real Thing”, “Manchild”, and “Wait for a Minute.” Following the advice of the latter song will probably help in enjoying Nikki Nack: wait for a minute, and the initial strangeness of this album will transform into something wholly addicting and undeniable.
The War on Drugs – Lost in the Dream
I started this article with a discussion of the hype machine. Lost in the Dream is an album I had in mind when bringing up that point: critics have adorned this album with particularly strong praise, so much so that, on first listen, I wondered what they were hearing. After the critical storm passed, however, I found my ears more receptive and willing to form an opinion that remained my own, yet aligned closely with the popular notion. I’ll still insist that this album, the third effort from these Americana-indebted Philly natives, isn’t as great as the blogosphere dictates, but it’s still pretty damn good regardless.
Lost in the Dream can be very simply described with a small handful of words: introspective, gorgeous, rustic. Its lyrics stem from the post-tour and post-breakup depression songwriter Adam Granduciel experienced after touring his band’s sophomore effort Slave Ambient; the arrangements are paralyzing and mountainous; the instrumentation’s blend of Americana and folk influences often draws to mind images of sunny, breezy, vast spaces. This approach is always affecting, whether through the sunset beauty of “Disappearing”, the heartwrenching soar of “Under the Pressure”, or the Springsteen-recalling grandeur of “Burning.” Ultimately, though, it’s “Red Eyes” that attests to how far Granduciel has come: a tune that’s likely to appear towards the top of many best-songs-of-the-year-lists late this December, it’s emotional melodies and inward lyricism transform into fireworks right before its shimmering, arresting, guitar-based chorus. This impact is more subtle in other places on Lost in the Dream, but it’s omnipresence ensures that it won’t be missed no matter how quiet it is.
White Hex – Gold Nights
On a hunch, I’d guess that Gold Nights is the least well-known album on this list. Makes sense: this is an album that sounds like it’s watching everyone from an invisible corner, making harsh judgments with a frosty gust. It’s very creepy and unnerving in its simultaneous embrace of Cure-style guitar tones, Ladytron-inspired vocal roboticism, and Chromatics-based synth-guitar interplay and stutter. It struts right in with the icy, callous “Only a Game”, a tune that sounds like it’s emanating from where the highest-ranked wolf in the pack howls. Gold Nights then loses none of its opener’s grating, caustic iciness, ensuring an experience that’s harrowing in a different way than many albums are.
“Paradise”, the album’s strongest tune, follows “Only a Game”, and its differences from the rest of the pack shine a light on what makes this album so good. Most of Gold Nights exists in sub-zero temperatures: it’s an album so cold you can almost feel its bite directly on your skin. “Paradise”, on the other hand, is a skyward, cutting slab of 21st century new wave. The vocals are no less haunting here, but the sheer size of the synths presented make this tune a good notch warmer than the rest. This added feeling becomes especially apparent when this song is compared to later tracks like “Burberry Congo” and “United Colours of KL”, tunes with synth parts so bitter and dark they’re almost goofy. The cold that pervades Gold Nights is its most consistent strength, and it’s interesting that “Paradise” accentuates this quality. Wear a winter jacket for this one.
White Lung – Deep Fantasy
By far the shortest album on this list, Deep Fantasy is irresistible simply because of how quick and intense its ten blasts of raucous, 90s-indebted punk are. At a total of twenty-two minutes, Fantasy doesn’t allow time for its listeners to fantasize at all despite its name: these songs are over almost as soon as they begin. That’s not to say they don’t develop thrillingly over their short runtime, though: tracks like “Face Down”, “Wrong Star”, and “Snake Jaw” owe such a distinct debt to riot grrrl and grunge that each passing section of the song is blood-rushing.
White Lung’s worship of the 1990s can’t quite attest to the breakneck paces of these songs, though: “Lucky One” and “Down It Goes” are so rapid it’s head-spinning. It all sounds like if the more surf-heavy side of classic grunge had sped up their songs so much that they verged on metal territory. In fact, “I Believe You” and “Drown With the Monster” may damn well be better described as metal than as punk. The latter song’s commanding, confrontational guitars match the vitriol of its addiction-analyzing lyrics, and topics as heavy as these are common on Deep Fantasy. That White Lung’s guitars often match in intensity is a victory all around.
Wye Oak – Shriek
Shriek is a grower and not a shower. Actually, it’s a bit of the latter too: the album’s flashy, sauntering synths instantly attract attention even in their first appearances. This characteristic provides a good foundation for getting to know the ten songs occupying Shriek, but an initial batch of listens shows that it isn’t quite enough. Instead, to build on the intentional omission of guitar on this album, Wye Oak provide flowing bass and breathy, introspective vocals courtesy of Jenn Wasner, and these are elements that reveal themselves over time.
Lots and lots of time, that is. Whereas tunes like “The Tower” and “Glory” are immediately hooky and irresistible, much of Shriek‘s remainder feels distant until more listens than you can count on your hands have passed. You might be asking, “Why should I try this album if I need to invest so much to enjoy it?” The answer is actually quite simple: give these songs the attention they demand, and you’ll find yourself entangled in their web of gorgeously dreamy emotions and lush sonic textures. A psych-folk tune like “School of Eyes” becomes a blustery, engaging heart-warmer after feeling cold and untouchable; a meditation like “I Know the Law” transforms from an uninterestingly timid passage to an entrapping contemplation. And when these tunes don’t quite feel like enough, it’s easy to turn straight to the intensely catchy, funky “Glory”, the song that most strongly attests to how powerful Wye Oak can sound when they achieve the best possible combination of vocals, synth, and bass.