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The Year In Review: Our Favorite Music of 2014

By Brian Byrd, TK & Courtney Enlow | Seriously Random Lists | December 17, 2014 | Comments ()

By Brian Byrd, TK & Courtney Enlow | Seriously Random Lists | December 17, 2014 |


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Determining the year’s best music always gets a bit dicey. Trans4mers and Nightcrawler both have Best Picture aspirations. But we can all agree there are objective quality differences between the two. Music is much more subjective, its enjoyment predicated largely on personal taste. Arguments for or against a record frequently boil down to, “I dunno, it’s just better.”

So forget “best.”  Instead, we picked our five favorite albums and songs, and threw in five albums or artists from any year that we discovered in 2014. 

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This wasn’t an easy task, especially for TK, who doesn’t really have a favorite anything, just things he hates less than other things. Regardless, we think it’s a pretty strong rundown. 

Albums of the Year

Click each album title to open in Spotify 

Brian Byrd:
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5. Banks - Goddess
There’s nothing transcendent about Banks’ debut LP. Yet it’s one of few albums from 2014 that I regularly enjoy without skipping tracks. In a year with few standout releases, that’s enough for Goddess to make the cut.                                                                                                                                                                                                            

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4. Jenny Lewis - The Voyager
The beloved indie singer-songwriter’s first album since 2008 is a fun, sharp, frequently poignant release that rarely falters throughout its 40 minute run time. My only complaint is that she handed “Completely Not Me” over to HBO for the Girls soundtrack. THEY HAVE ENOUGH HELP, JENNY!

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3. FKA twigs - LP1
I’m still not entirely sure how to describe FKA twigs’ freshman release. Haunting electronic R&B? Ethereal indie pop? Pirated alien signals from another galaxy? Eventually, I gave up trying to categorize LP1 and just started calling the album what it is: Fantastic. Dare you to finish “Two Weeks” and not run it back more five times.

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2. Ghostface Killah - 36 Seasons
Tony Stark (Ghostface) assembles his Avengers (Pharaoh Monch, AZ, Nems, and Kool G Rap) for an episodic crime-story concept album that should hold us over until Serial season two arrives. Ghost’s character returns home after nine years (36 seasons) to find his neighborhood in ruins, his reputation diminished, his friends wearing police blues, and his girl shacked up with another man. Heartbreak, twists and violence ensue. Lean, descriptive lyrics and soulful 70s-tinged production by The Revelations create a more authentic, tactile world in 40 minutes than most television shows manage in five years.

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1. Run the Jewels - Run the Jewels 2
The perfect soundtrack for fistfighting a Panzer and hate-fucking the remains. Good luck finishing this album with your blood pressure anywhere near a medically safe range. Killer Mike and El-P had the stones to revisit a classic and the skills to deliver a product that somehow exceeds the original.

TK:

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5. Aloe Blacc - Lift Your Spirit

Basically the feel-good, stomp your feet, shake your ass record of the year, Lift Your Spirit is just a terrific, heartwarming, pop album.  Blacc is immensely talented as a vocalist, performer, and writer, but he gets assists from everyone from Pharrell Williams to Elton John.


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4. Iselia - II:Dawn

This little known act is hands down one of the best hardcore acts working today.  They’re a brilliantly talented outfit that features gorgeous, post-rockish melodies accompanied by breathtakingly intense, gritty dueling vocals.  They blew me away with their debut, Life From Dead Limbs, and they keep getting better.  I only hope that the word continues to spread for them.

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3. Atmosphere - Southsiders

Anytime Minnesota rap duo Atmosphere releases an album, you sit up and take notice.  Filled with Ant’s diverse, complex beats and production and the brilliant, world weary vocals of Slug, Southsiders is another deep, fascinating, intelligent hip hop record.  This is easily their best since When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold, and since I consider that to be one of my favorite hip hop records ever, that’s high praise.

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2. Mastodon - Once More ‘Round The Sun

I once said that Mastodon, an ever-evolving, technically brilliant metal band, had eventually evolved into a band that I no longer enjoyed (mostly due to the critically acclaimed The Hunter, which I never cared for).  They’ve got this weird mix of straight metal, prog, sludge, and god knows what else, and when it works, it’s literally genius… it just doesn’t always work for me.  Once More ‘Round The Sun fucking works, man.  It keeps the relentless tempo of their fabulous Leviathan, while throwing enough wild, meandering, progressive heart into it to make for one of the most enjoyable metal albums in quite some time.

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1. Fallujah - The Flesh Prevails

My number one is not going to be particularly popular with our readership, and that’s cool.  They’re a progressive technical death metal band, which isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.  But that said, The Flesh Prevails is an intense, complex, riveting listen that flies in the face of what we conventionally consider to be metal.  They’ve created an art piece with this album, a gorgeous, grim, sprawling epic of an album that takes the very best parts of each genre and seamlessly melds it into one monster of an album.  There is something for many people here, though it may take patience to find it.  But for metalheads, it’s just goddamn beautiful.

Courtney Enlow:

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5. The New Pornographers - Brill Bruisers

At their best, my beloved New Pornographers sound like the best kind of summer. All elation and heart, even in their quieter moments. And what’s special about Brill Bruisers is you can sense a stronger collaboration. Songs aren’t relegated to Newman songs, Neko songs and the couple Dan Bejar songs he will walk out onstage and sing and then disappear for a while. This album felt like a group effort, and I do love when a band gets together. 

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4. D’Angelo - Black Messiah

Fourteen years in the making, and well goddamn worth it. This is so new I’m still in the falling in love part, but it lives up to the hype you’ve heard. All of it. Every single bit.



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3. Fireflies - In Dreams

Fireflies, a solo project from Chicago artist Lisle Mitnik, is what dreams soundlike. But, the best dreams. Soft and sadly joyful, feeling big and small all at once. Mitnik’s voice is a treasure, and one that far too few have uncovered. Discover and enjoy, friends.


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2. Lykke Li - I Never Learn

For the product of such sad inspiration (a breakup that culminated in a 5,000-mile move), the music on I Never Learn feels downright hopeful, providing the musical clarity that can only be found after hitting an emotional bottom.


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1. First Aid Kit - Stay Gold

Some of my favorite Americana folk of the past few years has come from these two Swedish sisters. Their perfect harmonies evoke Emmylou Harris and Patty Griffin, but their sound stays unique, and this latest album succeeds in that regard more than their others as they settle into their own sound. 

Five New Discoveries

Brian Byrd:

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The Foreign Exchange - Connected
Proof that outsourcing isn’t always harmful. The Foreign Exchange was born when rapper Phonte asked beatmaker Nicolay if he could put down vocals over one of the Dutch producer’s tracks. Nicolay agreed. The pair continued to collaborate for nearly a year until they had enough tracks to build their 2004 debut, Connected. Take an hour and enjoy their brand of lush, intelligent, uplifting hip-hop.

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Bonobo - Animal Magic/The North Borders
There is no musical genre I despise more than EDM. But I can’t tell you how many posts I write with this Brighton artist’s tracks bubbling in the background. The rationalizations I create to reconcile these dichotomies would make a lawyer roll his eyes. BONOBO DOESN’T HAVE A GIANT MOUSE ON HIS HEAD, IT’S FINE! 

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Polica - Give You The Ghost
Synth-driven electro-pop doesn’t typically my bag, but Polica’s 2012 debut is so assured, so unique, so catchy, that I just can’t resist.                                                                                                                                                            


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Lord Huron - Lonesome Dreams
Stumbled across Lonesome Dreams in January and still haven’t removed it from heavy rotation. Hypnotic, expansive, and easy on the ears. I didn’t realize how much I loved the album until I got pissed when I heard one of the songs in a Zales commercial.                                                                                                                                                          

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Dungeonesse - Dungeonesse
This bombastic love letter to 90s pop by a pair of Charm City indie musicians (Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner and producer Jon Ehrens) is much better and far more addicting than it has any right be. In a just world, Dungeonesse receives the praise music critics are currently heaping on Taylor Swift’s 1989.


TK:

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Okkervil River - I Am Very Far

Ugh.  These fuckin’ guys.  Dustin’s been blathering to me about Okkervil River for years, and I always ignored him because our tastes are so comically divergent.  But then I stumbled across them this year and goddamnit.  God fucking DAMN IT.  This is a terrific band and a wonderful record.  This album is something of a departure for them, and perhaps because of that, it’s one of their best.  I wouldn’t dream of pigeon holing it by giving it a genre.  It’s just damn good music.

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Denice FrohmanFeels Like Home 

Frohman blew up the internet last year with her slam poem “Dear Straight People”, and then she went on to release an album later in the year.  It’s a combination of poetry and music, often simultaneously.  When she sings, as on the track “Can’t Let You Go,” she’s enchanting, and when she’s throwing down poetry, she’ll blow your shit to the back of the room.  She’s terrific.  Also, follow her on Twitter.  She’s awesome.

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Monster TruckFuriosity

I don’t have much to say about these guys other than if you like pure, straightforward, ass-kicking heavy rock and roll, then stop whatever you’re wasting your time with and pick up the gleefully titled Furiosity, like right now.



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The Bronx/Mariachi El Bronx - Everything they’ve ever done, ever.

So here’s a sad truth.  I don’t read much about music anymore.  So I discovered NYC hardcore punk band The Bronx earlier this year, I was simply happy to find them.  They play a rough-hewn, intense kind of punk rock that you don’t find much anymore.  But then I discovered that… they have an alter ego.  Mariachi El Bronx is the exact same band, except they perform Mariachi music, complete with outfits.  This isn’t a joke, either.  They’ve released four punk records and three mariachi records.  It’s beyond awesome.

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Raleigh RitchieBlack & Blue EP

You know Raleigh Ritchie.  You’ve seen his taciturn, understated performance as Grey Worm on HBO’s Game Of Thrones.  Did you also know that he produces gorgeous, smart, hip hop/pop music? Well he does, and he’s great, and you should listen to his stuff.  It’s diverse in its sound, and he’s got some kickass videos, too.  Give him a listen.

Courtney Enlow:

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Waxahatchee - American Weekend

You may notice a theme among three of these. Because, at this point in my life, it’s hard to discover new music. It must be handed to me on a silver platter—or, at least, a podcast featuring a silvery-voiced radio announcer. Yes, thanks to a weather segment on Welcome to Night Vale, I first heard “Catfish” by Waxhatchee, possibly the most beautifully heartbreaking song I’ve heard since Mazzy Star’s heyday. Simply stunning.

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Eliza Rickman - O, You Sinners

Another entry in the “Thanks, Night Vale” category, Rickman performed at several live performances of the podcast and that is how I was blessed with her toy piano and simply lovely voice. 


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Carrie Elkin & Danny Schmidt - For Keeps

OK, this is the last Night Vale one, I swear. The podcast was particularly heartbreaking this year, or at least since the summer, and Carrie Elkin and Danny Schmidt’s “Echo in the Hills” was fittingly heartstring-tugging. The whole album is a folk wonder and I’m happy I got to find it.

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Lucius - Wildewoman

Wildewoman may have been released in late 2013, but it didn’t make its way to my heart and iTunes till this year and, man, I don’t know what I did before it. If you want to feel great about life, just listen to this album. It makes the sun come out.


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Grouper - Ruins

If Lucius makes the sun come out, Grouper brings the clouds in the best way. She’s like a beautifully sad ghost, all ambient noise and distant piano and soft vocals. It will break your heart—and sometimes we all kind of want that.


Songs of the Year


Brian Byrd:

5. HAIM feat. A$AP Ferg - “My Song 5 (Remix)”
A fun drop-in from the Trap Lord elevates one of the best songs from one of last year’s best albums.
4. OB O’Brien - “Hazelton Trump”
OVO’s weed guy shows the boss he has other assets on this short, slinky single with a filthy NSFW Nicki Minaj refrain.
3. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. - “James Dean”
Don’t let the too-clever-by-half band name deter you. Listen once, and this smooth cut will remain on replay for months.
2. Run the Jewels feat. Zack de la Rocha - “Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)”
Sparse, grungy, earwormy beat? Killer Mike and El-P inciting prison riots and railing against corrupt sacred cows? Former Rage Against the Machine frontman de la Rocha showing up late and nearly renegading the entire track? Check, check, check. Crank the volume a few extra notches and bask in the endorphins for four minutes.
1. Statik Selektah feat. Action Bronson, Royce Da 5’9”, Black Thought - “The Imperial”
The Roots MC uses this impeccably produced Statik Selektah track to remind hip-hop that Fallon gigs haven’t dulled his skills. Black Thought doesn’t just outshine Bronsolino and Royce. He puts the entire game on notice with a furious two-minute feature that concludes with Thought demanding a place in rap’s top five. Shit, YOU tell him he’s wrong.

Courtney Enlow:
5. Taylor Swift - “I Know Places”
Guys. Guys. You know how I feel about Taylor Swift. So if I am counting this as one of the best songs I heard all year, you know I am serious. Everyone was so praising this album, so I ran through it on iTunes, largely unimpressed. It just wasn’t my vibe. A bit too electronic dance pop for my taste. But this song? Jesus. I love this song. I love a Taylor Swift song. Because it is a good, GOOD song.
4. Dan Wilson - “However Long”
You know Dan Wilson. Trust me. Formerly the lead singer of the unfairly-designated-as-one-hit-wonders band Semisonic, Wilson is also responsible for Adele’s “Someone Like You” among other songs. His 2007 solo debut Free Life is one of my favorite albums, and I was nervous his follow-up Love Without Fear would fail to measure up. It’s a lovely album, but this song is its standout star. 
3. Beyonce - “Partition”
The best song about car-f*cking? It’s definitely up there. Fun fact: the French portion of the song says “Do you like sex? Sex. I mean, the physical activity. Coitus. Do you like it? You’re not interested in sex? Men think that feminists hate sex, but it’s a very stimulating and natural activity that women love.” That’s all you need to know.
2. Carrie Elkin & Danny Schmidt - “Echo in the Hills”
They call me Echo / My voice is real but not my own / It only shows what i’ve been shown / I’m the echo in the hills.” Still crying about this song and will be well into 2015. Sigh.
1. Lucius - “Hey Doreen”
I know this is a reach, but the video came out this year and that is good enough for me to call it a 2014 song. Because good goddamn, this song. Just listen and dance your face off.

TK:
5. Sam Smith - “Stay With Me”
This is just a heartbreaker of a track, off a fantastic record that almost broke my top five. Smith has sort of a male Norah Jones vibe, but not quite as milquetoast as her first record was. He’s got a lovely voice that hits the high notes with such passion and vibrance that it’s almost heavenly.
4. Mastodon - “The Motherload”
This is such a great song, and surprisingly uplifting, given it comes from a metal monsters Mastodon. But it’s a very accessible track that gives off a great vibe, but also perfectly demonstrates just how damn talented this band is.
3. Floor - “Rocinante”
A song about Don Quixote’s horse? A song about Don Quixote’s horse. But damn is this a great track by Floor, a band that’s been around forever, had a dozen incarnations, and been pronounced dead more than once. This year they came roaring back, and this track is sublime, with its relentless wall of guitar noise and keep-you-on-your-toes percussion.
2. Sylvan Esso - “Coffee”
Sylvan Esso often feels like a spiritual successor to The Postal Service, with their warm synths, catchy beats, and Amelia Meath’s sumptuous, hypnotic vocals. The terrible truth? This might be a better album than Give Up, not that we need to be competitive. This is just a lush, lovely, poppy little number that I have yet to get tired of.
1. Iselia - “Troubled Hearts”
Best hardcore track of 2014 to me, brutal and breathless, with a beautiful melody and stellar composition. I’ll crack my fucking steering wheel listening to this track one of these days.



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