Top 50 Albums of 2014, Part Five: 10 – 1

Hey y’all! Well, how about this, huh? Here be the ten best rekkids of the year done gone past. Huge thanks for seeing through list season with me. Catch y’all next time around!

50 – 41
40 – 31
30 – 21
20 – 11

10. The Gaslight Anthem – Get Hurt
Spotify || Rdio

Life isn’t all blue jeans and white t-shirts. The Gaslight Anthem have finally escaped the small town that almost killed them and have wound up strangers in a strange land on their fifth album. Get Hurt is an exploration through unchartered waters and foreign territory, a much-needed break from the comfort zone that, regardless of the quality of outcome, could well have killed this band had they remained within its confines.

Certainly, it wasn’t as if there was some drastic detour into acid jazz or anything of the sort – after all, as Brian Fallon himself sings at one juncture, “I still love rock & roll/I still call somebody ‘baby.’” There is a stretching of boundaries here, however, that is indicative of a prosperous future beyond nights with the radio and Maryanne. Get Hurt is the sound of Gaslight beginning again.

THREE TOP TRACKS: Stay Vicious, Get Hurt, Break Your Heart.

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9. Sia – 1000 Forms of Fear
Spotify || Rdio

Sia Furler, for a time, was the ghost of pop charts past. Her writing credits and, if listening closely, her unmistakable voice, infiltrated dozen of singles from some of the biggest names in the industry. It’s a life that could well have made a sustainable living for the rest of her days. The call of work under her own name, however – on hold for several years at this point – eventually grew too strong.

There were stipulations: No touring, no media campaign, no public appearances. It was a fair compromise, however, when in return we received her greatest LP since 2004’s spotless Colour the Small One. Marrying her intrinsic, introspective songwriting with the sensibilities gained from her double-life in mainstream pop, Fear allowed us to see behind the blonde bob wig. We may not have seen her face all year, but this allowed for something greater – we saw her heart.

THREE TOP TRACKS: Elastic Heart, Big Girls Cry, Chandelier.

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8. Die! Die! Die! – S W I M
Spotify || Rdio || Bandcamp

An exercise in irony: The definitive album from a veteran band has its title based on an online acronym for “someone who isn’t me.” Truth be told, this is an album could not have come from any other band – after over a decade sharpening and refining their throttled, scorched-earth take on noise-heavy post-punk, all roads that Die! Die! Die! have travelled have ultimately lead to S W I M’s creation.

It snarls, scratches and seethes through envy, paranoia and disconnect – in other words, it’s a decidedly ugly, ruthlessly aggressive listen. It’s not user-friendly or accessible, of course. Die! Die! Die! have never been as such before. The difference is that they have never sounded so vital and purposeful in the execution of their ideas as they do here and now.

THREE TOP TRACKS: Angel, Get Hit, Out of Mind.

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7. La Dispute – Rooms of the House
Spotify || Rdio || Bandcamp

A house is not a home. That doesn’t mean that it never has been, of course. Finding the house that was once a home – your home – can trigger so many memories, stories, truths and once-faded thoughts. This is conceptually explored – with considerable depth, it must be added – on La Dispute’s third studio album.

The hyper-literacy and Jordan Dreyer’s foreboding poetry that weaved its way through previous releases not only recurs on the album, but arguably latches onto its strongest subject matter to date. Each room sparks something different, allowing the protagonist to reflect on how much has changed since the transition from home to house. It’s often not for the better, but it’s perhaps this that keeps one hanging on every single word. Rooms of the House is a creative work in every sense.

THREE TOP TRACKS: Woman (In Mirror), For Mayor in Splitsville, Stay Happy There.

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6. Pinch Hitter – When Friends Die in Accidents
Spotify || Rdio || Bandcamp

A chance encounter. A dead-end job. A fear of flying. An untimely demise. A sudden realisation. A friend in need. These things, while separate entities from a contextual standpoint, are tangled together in the half-hour-and-change that comprises the debut album from this unexpected team-up.

While many came to know the project from Nick van Breda and Dave Drayton from their live shows – simply two men, two voices and, yes, two banjos – Accidents allows the two to flourish in a wider spectrum. Their musings and noodlings are guided by xylophone (“Nine-to-Fine”), flutes (“All of a Sudden”) and even typewriters (“They Said This Would Stop” – no shit). It’s all tied up with the four-part title track that weaves in and out of the tracklisting – and its final blow is still as devastating long after the first time you hear it.

A folk album without guitar? It’s possible. Anything’s possible. Everything’s matter. Everything matters.

THREE TOP TRACKS: All of a Sudden, Part IV, Nine-to-Fine.

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5. Death From Above 1979 – The Physical World
Spotify || Rdio

Back in a time when the American president was public enemy number one, Kanye West was a debut-album rookie and dance-punk was as legitimate as any rock subgenre, one guitar-less duo ruled over their six-stringed contemporaries with a half-hour of power known as You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine. It was cemented by ear-splitting live shows, instant cult status and an unforgettable performance on Conan with none other than Max Weinberg sitting in.

It would take two short years for everything to fall apart for Death From Above 1979, and that – so we thought – was that. Several contributing factors lead to the band’s eventual reunion, but the most prevalent ended up being unfinished business. Despite becoming quote-unquote “adults” in the time they were apart, there was still an agenda to make loud, visceral and ripsnorting rock & roll.

That’s where The Physcial World comes in – a rarity insofar as being a sequel that not only matches up to its predecessor, but threatens to rival it so often it may well swallow the thing whole. Long live Death.

THREE TOP TRACKS: Right On, Frankenstein!, White is Red, Cheap Talk.

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4. Sun Kil Moon – Benji
Spotify || Rdio

Were you told about Benji on paper, one would rightly distance themselves from it as soon as humanly possible. Just think – a late-forties dude mumbling about his parents, his dead uncle, various sexual encounters, James Gandolfini and his home state of Ohio. What could possibly be appealing about that?

It could well be argued that Benji, as an album, succeeds on account of these traits and not in spite of them. Mark Kozelek has been known in the past to allow his simple, sombre style of songwriting and storytelling to uplift ordinary things, places and people into the extraordinary. Jim Wise sounds like an odd, weird dude. On “Jim Wise,” however, he somehow turns into an endlessly-fascinating character. The same can be said of Kozelek’s second cousin, his drummer and even his dear mother (“My mother is 75/She’s the closest friend I have ever had.”) They are – or were, in some cases – just regular people until Sun Kil Moon reels them into his world.

Whether you find him driving to a Postal Service show or tripping out on Led Zeppelin in his younger days, Mark Kozelek somehow makes the cold all the more inviting. Benji is a journey – a long, exhausting and depressing one; but one any self-respecting music fan should take at some point in their lives.

THREE TOP TRACKS: Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes, I Love My Dad, Carissa.

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3. Ben Howard – I Forget Where We Were
Spotify || Rdio

“Has the world gone mad?” opines Ben Howard mere minutes into the first track on his second album, before adding a further line of questioning: “Or is it me?” By the end of I Forget Where We Were, you won’t have an answer. Hell, you won’t even have one after a dozen spins. As it progresses, the album poses far more questions than it provides answers or traces of resolve.

Perhaps it’s this that makes it such an intriguing prospect – from a songwriting perspective, it allows Howard to less scratch below the surface and more dig down as far as humanly possible. Besides bearing his name, precious little else lies on the common ground between Forget and its predecessor – here, we work through varying degrees of light and shade; love and loss; truth and lies. It takes you to points where you fear you may never return – points you feel, as a listener, you may well not be entirely prepared to go.

Herein lies the rich reward of I Forget where We Were. Ben Howard has evolved from being a mere singer-songwriter – here, he has become a journeyman.

THREE TOP TRACKS: End of the Affair, I Forget Where We Were, Conrad.

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2. Pianos Become the Teeth – Keep You
Spotify || Rdio || Bandcamp

Ray Charles, an r&b star, once made a country album. Kanye West, a rap phenomenon, once made an album where he sang for its entirety. Radiohead, at one point the most promising prospect in guitar music, once made an album where they barely touched the things. More than once, now you mention it. What is this all leading to? It’s simple, really: The notion that risks should not only be taken, but actively encouraged. Who knows what awaits on the other side? Perhaps true greatness.That’s what happened on Keep You.

Pianos Become the Teeth – an emo band in the true sense, bypassing the mall to arrive at Orchid’s discography – made an album where their harsh screams and dissonant guitars were traded in for what are known in hardcore circles as “clean” vocals and a collective dip into the waters of the indie and post-rock spectrums. It was an all-or-nothing movie – make or break, sink or swim. The Baltimore natives risked everything and won it back tenfold.

Not only is it the finest of their three long-players, it also serves as a shining beacon from their immediate scene – a message to the outer reaches detailing the adventurous versatility at work within it. For an album whose final line is a cry of “Let’s say nothing some more,” Keep You says more in its actions than words ever could.

THREE TOP TRACKS: Repine, April, Old Jaw.

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1. Sleaford Mods – Divide and Exit
Spotify || Rdio || Bandcamp

Around ten years ago, in an interview with NME, Carl Barât was asked his favourite album of the year as part of a generic series of questions asked of several musicians. Barât chose A Grand Don’t Come for Free by The Streets, reasoning that the album was a reflection of England that many may not necessarily want to see or hear about.

This is being brought up a decade on for two core reasons. The first of which is to sound the trumpets to signal the arrival of a new outfit less holding up a mirror to contemporary British society and more smashing said mirror and holding up a jagged shard, just to feel the pain that the pricks of blood bring. The second is admittedly a little more petulant – it’s because the reference and the people and publication which it contains would be immediately be despised by James Williamson, the spoken-word half of Sleaford Mods who barks, grunts, prophesises and spits through every last thing that displeases him.

It’s a cruel, frustrating world in which he lives; one that constantly brands him a fool and a ne’er-do-well when it should be acknowledging him as the smartest guy in the room. “I can’t believe the rich still exist,” he laments within the album’s opening minutes. “Let alone run the fucking country.” It’s said through fuzz and distortion, and yet it lands with all the clarity of being yelled directly into your ear. He may soapbox his way through several tracks (“Liveable Shit,” “Tweet Tweet Tweet”), but certain things slash through a raw nerve. He may seethe at an upper-class acquaintance he’s attempting to manipulate (“I’m a connoisseur!/I’ve conned you, sir!/I just wanked in your toilet!”) but his envy is quick to undo him entirely (“I want a house like this, how do I get it?/It’s beautiful! It’s fucking ridiculous!”).

There are layers of complications, deep-running waters of disarray and the throbbing pain of a hangover following another bottomless night in the sewerage of another disgusting city. Divide and Exit was the sound of the everyman’s demise, the death of the common people and the experiment starting over. Sleaford Mods might not want to change the world, nor is it looking specifically for a new England – and, yet, both are achieved and found, respectively, on Divide and Exit. A voice raised to its heights for years on end has finally shifted to the forefront and being paid the attention it deserves.

THREE TOP TRACKS: You’re Brave, Tied Up in Nottz, Liveable Shit.

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The Top 100 Songs of 2014, Part Two: 80 – 61

In case you missed out on part one, you can check out the previous 20 songs here. If not, then let’s get right back into it…

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80. Manchester Orchestra – Top Notch

Four albums in and Manchester Orchestra’s Andy Hull is still searching. Not just for himself, or some kind of greater truth; but for what can be found and what can be learned in the ways other people. He remains one of the poignant and powerful voices within contemporary indie rock, and this is cemented with the resolute, belligerent opener to April’s Cope. An occasionally-cacophonous affair, Hull remains centred at its core. “I know there’s no way to fix it” isn’t a line delivered with despair – it’s a line delivered with acceptance. The search continues.

79. sleepmakeswaves – Something Like Avalanches

The last twelve months have seen sleepmakeswaves translate their cult status among fans of local music into something far greater than any of them could have anticipated: top 40 chart positions, ARIA and Triple J award nominations and a reputation as our single greatest post-rock export. At the centre of this has been “Something Like Avalanches,” which lead us into their exceptional Love of Cartography while also serving as quite possibly their single finest moment. Its whisper-to-shout progressions, seemingly-endless array of left-hooks and bursts of energy tidily summarise why we’re dealing with one of Australia’s most important bands right now.

78. Run the Jewels feat. Zach de la Rocha – Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)

A hip-hop behemoth, an effortlessly-cool underground king and one of the true rock revolutionaries of the 90s – what could possibly go wrong? On what was one of the year’s most badass numbers, Mike and Jaime bark with authoritative force over malfunctioning, bass-gurgling beats; dropping references to everything from Al Pacino to The Anarchist Cookbook. This all happens before leading in the former Rage Against the Machine frontman on a verse that is potentially his most vital since The Battle of Los Angeles a whole fifteen years ago. Old dogs, new tricks and a certified banger to show for it.

77. Mere Women – Our Street

The idea of impermanence within the confines of a relationship isn’t something that’s often brought up in songwriting – we’re either at blossoming, tender beginnings or the hateful, bitter end. “Our Street” is a song that looks at that moment where you see the end in sight – the hook of “I’ve walked down this street so many times” is one of both familiarity and frustration through boredom. It’s backed by some of the best guitar sound on any record in 2014; as well as a minimal but noticeable shade of accessibility shining through the band’s art-rock exterior. Misery loves company.

76. The Decemberists – Make You Better

Colin Meloy’s days of drowning children, barrow boys and giant whales are behind him. That’s not to suggest that he’s lost any of his imagination in his hyper-literate songwriting, but more that he’s focused back in on reality. On his band’s first single in four years, he guides his acclaimed wordplay through a romance that seeks co-dependence and relit flames while maintaining an honesty about what it all means. It’s unpretentious in its delivery, and yet it still leaves an impact just as strong as any of their more melodramatic numbers. A great mind of modern music has rebooted.

75. The New Pornographers – Champions of Red Wine

Less than a year after dropping an exceptional solo LP, Neko Case was at it again; this time with the Canadian collective she made her name with all those years ago. Years have passed since the last Pornos offering, and yet it immediately falls back into place; albeit with slightly different surroundings. An earth-orbiting synthesizer leads the fray; which weaves in and out of a washed-out acoustic guitar, a sturdy kick-kick-snare backbeat and some truly beautiful vocal interplay between Case and A.C. Newman over a wordless Irish-folk-flavoured refrain. No time for losers – The New Pornographers are still the champions.

74. Modern Baseball – Two Good Things

Detached, disillusioned, dissatisfied, dissociative… this, people, is how youth of today are feeling. Modern Baseball did a better job than most (if not all) of reflecting this on You’re Gonna Miss It All, providing a song that’s both endlessly quotable (“Mathematically, that can’t be more than one end of a candle/Bottom of the night, can’t find my socks”) and meticulously crafted. As one of the more subdued moments of the album, it recalls The Weakerthans in structure, while also alluding to doo-wop (see the “da-da-da” rounds following the first verse) and late-2000s pop-punk. Here they are now – entertain them.

73. Aaron West and the Roaring Twenties – Divorce and the American South

Last year, Dan Campbell was asking himself “Did I fuck up?” on The Wonder Years’ “Passing Through a Screen Door.” Here, he flat-out confesses “I’m a fuck-up.” Well, sort of: He’s saying it as Aaron West, the titular character of his solo project. West pleads with his estranged wife on an answering machine, revealing more of his inner turmoil than he’d care to do in person. Little else touches Campbell’s solo performance, but they’re justified inclusions – pedal steel adds guiding lights to this sad country song; while a lone trumpet sounds out the finale with a trace of hope.

72. Hilltop Hoods – Cosby Sweater

Without getting into too much detail, it wasn’t a great year for Bill Cosby. His choice of clothing from the 80s, however, was doing just fine. Alluding to a famous photo of Biggie Smalls wearing the titular jumper, the Hoods returned to the limelight with one of their most fun singles yet from a thoroughly-consistent new album (a rarity if said album is your seventh). If the rollicking beat wasn’t enough, the energy and tongue-in-cheek cultural references (Oprah, Pat Benatar, chess legend Bobby Fischer) from MCs Suffa and Pressure ensured that it went over the line. And it’s all good.

71. Taylor Swift – Shake It Off

70. Death From Above 1979 – White is Red

A teenage romance ending in tragedy is as old as the hills – and even they’re sick of hearing “Last Kiss” over and over. It’s an intriguing concept, though, when it comes from a band normally inclined to skip the foreplay – their last album was called You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine, for shit’s sake. “White is Red” recalls love turned sour on a late-night runaway drive going anywhere. It’s sprinkled with clear influence of heartland-rock storytelling, yet delivered in a manner best paralleled with the band’s “Black History Month.” A colourful song that also revels in its darkness.

69. Future Islands – Doves

Releasing the doves has always been a grandiose gesture going well over the borderline of the flat-out ridiculous. This kind of theatricality is brought to mind by the title alone of this cut from Future Islands’ fourth studio album, so imagine what happens when it actually kicks in with its arena-sized snare flams and John Oates synth-chimes. It’s yet another example of the band potentially coming off as too out-there, too cheesy, too goofy… and then just nailing it entirely. A pop smash best served with that slithery dance move Samuel T. Herring does that recalls SNL‘s “sloppy swish” sketch.

68. Royal Blood – Little Monster

The backlash for rock’s next big thing arrived just as quickly as the cover stories and Dave Grohl soundbites proclaiming them to be saviours of the genre. Wherever you ended up on the spectrum, it was hard to ignore a track like “Little Monster” – if for no other reason that it was a loud motherfuckin’ song. A hybrid of QOTSA at their most stoner-metal meeting Muse at their ballsiest, the track simultaneously kicks up dust and kicks out the jams. “You say you got nothing/So come out and get some,” offers bassist/vocalist Mike Kerr. Don’t mind if we do.

67. Slipknot – Custer

Dun-dun-da, dun-dun-da, dun-dun-da-da-da. It might look like a slap-dash use of onomatopoeia, but it served as a dog whistle to metal fans returning to the world of Iowa’s premier nu-metal survivors. Genre politics aside, the fact that the band is still standing at all after all they have been through is a miracle unto itself. To deliver a song like this, however – an all-guns-blazing sensory assault that makes a song like “People = Shit” sound like Jack Johnson – surely cements them as a band that have paid their dues in full and one that deserves far more credit.

66. Collarbones – Turning

It’s always important to note the creativity in each single from Collarbones: What can initially seem like something that’s going to collapse into itself steadily and surely turns itself into a pop-and-locking wonderland. It’s as if they’ve rearranged puzzle pieces where they were clearly not originally intended to go and created a different picture entirely. In this instance, it’s a choppy, jolting slice of electro-pop that’s as much rnb come-ons as it is Macbook-hunched techno. “You make me feel like someone new,” sings out Marcus Whale – and it’s enough to get you excited for who they may be next.

65. Jenny Lewis – Just One of the Guys

We’re past the casual sex and the pained relationships of Jenny Lewis’ days in Rilo Kiley. As she approaches 40, she finds herself considering her own position in relation to her friends, her public perception and the supposed ticking clock following her around. Of course, we all know that Lewis is far more than “just another lady without a baby,” as she puts it; but it’s hearing her come to that conclusion on her own accord that makes this dreamy pop number all the more worthwhile. Now, about that tour with Kristen Stewart and Anne Hathaway as her backing band…

64. Weezer – Back to the Shack

The first words out of Rivers Cuomo’s mouth on Weezer’s first single in four years are “Sorry, guys.” No shit. Who’d have thought the man responsible for Make Believe and Raditude would be rushing to make amends with the die-hards? Perhaps it was their extensive touring of The Blue Album that made him reconsider what makes a great Weezer song, but the mojo is very much swinging in this two-chord rocker. “Maybe I should play the lead guitar,” he considers, “and Pat should play the drums.” They do just that, and we’re rocking out like it’s ’94 all over again.

63. Oslow – Cliffy

Cliff Young – aka Cliffy – was an Australian power-walker who won a marathon with a simple but clearly-effective shuffling method. Whether this was an influence on the third single from Oslow’s exceptional second EP is anyone’s guess, but a) It’s fun to speculate; and b) It’s reflected in the band’s focus on the groove and the spaces that go between each note as opposed to filling every gap. Oslow are clearly winning the race when it comes to the field of forward-thinking indie-rock emerging from Australia, so you’d best catch up – at your own pace, of course.

62. TV on the Radio – Careful You

One of the more understated romantics in alternative music singing in French? That’s how you do it. TV on the Radio have rarely shied away from romance in the past, ranging from the yearning (“Will Do”) to the R-rated (“Wear You Out”). It’s a little more subdued here, with Tunde Adebimpe sending his heart-on-sleeve lyricism into the ether with cooing keys, buzzing bass and some truly old-school drum machine loops. This is how TV on the Radio enters their forties – not with a whimper, nor with a bang, but with a kiss. Stop the world and melt with them.

61. La Dispute – For Mayor in Splitsville

Each room in the house that was conceptually centred around the band’s third album – titled, er, Rooms of the House – allowed vocalist Jordan Dreyer to explore memories, lost lives and a seemingly-forgotten past that’s slowly pieced together. At this point, he’s come across a particularly-ruined space, triggering memories of his childhood, as well as both the proverbial and literal tonne of bricks that came crashing down in the demise of his adult life. It’s clear that when he screams “I guess, in the end, we just move furniture around,” he’s not just talking a couch and a chair.

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60 – 41