It's that time of year again. June is almost at a close. The real heat of summer is yet to come. And a deluge of "Best Album of the Year...So Far" blog posts and articles are flooding the web.
As usual, I've spent this month hemming and hawwing over whether I want to throw my hat into the ring and cobble together my favorite records along with seemingly every other Joe and Jane Internet. In the end, I guess I'm more or less powerless to stop myself. Besides, there have been some surprises this year and some highly anticipated records that have fully lived up to the hype. 2014, at least up to this point in the year, has been a very good one for music. These choices aren't at all objective or often even based on anything other than my own personal enjoyment of the music. If you're looking for cut and dry critiques, you can find that elsewhere.
Let's get right to it, shall we?
Here are my ten favorite records so far for 2014, in no particular order.
Augustines - Augustines This is a record that sounds like a rainy, foggy night in the midst of the city, yet doesn't fall into the trap of being weepy and full of melacholy, even though there are plenty of both throughout. Augustines create a huge sound for just three guys. This is what I'd imagine U2 would sound like, were they still at all relevant.
Aan - Amor Ad Nauseum Aan took their time in making this record, and it was well worth the wait. There are standouts all over this record, starting with the opener, "Wet and Dripping" and running all the way through "Spiritual Provisions," "Bubble Bath Pop," and "Somewhere's Sunshine."
The War on Drugs - Lost in the Dream Another record filled with stretched out, ethereal jams from The War on Drugs find them honing their sound. Hauntingly remeniscent of the glory days of FM radio and it's standard-bearers like Tom Petty and Springsteen, yet strikingly original.
Future Islands - Singles It's been said over and over again, but there's really no better way to describe this Future Islands record - it's dad rock at it's finest. The audaciously-titled "Singles" is filled with just that, perfect pop singles that, were this still the 1980s, would be plastered all over the radio dial and MTV.
Afghan Whigs - Do to the Beast The first new material from the Afghan Whigs in over a decade was well worth the wait. Sure, Greg Dulli has been busy on his own during that time, churning out music as The Twilight Singers, The Gutter Twins, and as a solo act. But the 90s kid in me loves that the Afghan Whigs reunited, and that they still sound as unique and powerful as ever.
The Both - The Both It's no surprise that two artists so well-versed in writing hook-laden songs mesh so well. Ted Leo and Aimee Mann compliment each other perfectly as The Both. It's not groundbreaking or a massive artistic departure, but that's fine. Sometimes, you just want to tap your foot and lose yourself in something that sounds vaguely familiar.
Black Prairie - Fortune The fifth album from Portland's purveyors of bluegrass-ish supergroup, Black Prairie, is a true gem. Though they started out as a side-project for members of The Decemberists, it's hard to argue that they haven't made a name for themselves in this iteration. Fortune is less bluegrass and more alt-folk with pop leanings, there are still some of those bluegrass elements, and they're often perfectly timed for maximum effect.
tUnE-yArDs - nikki nack When Merrill Garbus burst onto the scene with tUnE-yArDs a few years ago, she was a breath of fresh air that took the music world by surprise in 2011 with w h o k i l l. It's often hard to follow up such a surprising debut, but nikki nack does just that. It's just as inventive, while at the same time building off of the style and sound she laid down.
Kishi Bashi - Lighight I admit, I had no idea who Kishi Bashi was a few months back. But this record (and the stellar debut 151a) are filled with lighter-than-air moments a plenty and so much wide-eyed joy that they are hard to put down. Behind the pure pop awesomeness, there are some serious chops and quite a few nods to 70s prog rock that create a surprisingly perfect mix.
Sharon Van Etten - Are We There Heartbreak and depression can be to heavy to bear for a listener. It's easy to just tune it out after awhile, yet somehow Sharon Van Etten keeps it compelling on Are We There. From the defiant opener "Afraid of Nothing" to the bleakly wistful closer "Every Time the Sun Comes Up," she weaves us through an all-too-human rollercoaster of love, loss, redemption, and perserverence that pushes you away while begging you to come closer.
Black Pistol Fire - Hush or Howl Sometimes, you just want to turn the stereo up to 11 and be gloriously overwhelmed by fuzzed-out, distorted guitar, thundering drums, and yelped vocals. No pretense, no overarching message, just raw rock and roll that has no other purpose than to fuck you up in the best way possible.
Jack White - Lazaretto Jack White is a singular character in the music scene. He helped to usher in the garage rock revival in the late 90s/early 2000s with his "sister" Meg thumping away on the drums, to spending a few years floating around as a guitar-for-hire with The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather, to dabbling as a more than capable producer for nearly-forgotten icons like Loretta Lynn and Wanda Jackson, and setting up his own label, Third Man. He's a man who wears many hats and manages to look dashing under every brim. Lazaretto is a true tour-de-force by an artist that knows what he's doing and doesn't give one shit what you think. A fine record in it's own right, it somehow still feels like White (or Jack White III, as he now seems to be calling himself) is only scratching the surface.
And for good measure here are some of my favorite songs of the year so far. I just can't seem to get these tracks out of my head, and I keep going back to them over and over and over again.
Play each of the following tracks here:
Against Me! - True Trans Soul Rebel: Laura Jane Grace made this record a tour-de-force after coming out as a transgender woman in 2012 and this track in particular just kills.
Augustines - Nothing to Lose But Your Head: I love this entire record, front to back, but this song always gets stuck in my head.
Aan - Wet and Dripping: It's rare that a band can capture the fervor of their live performance in the studio, but that's exactly what Aan did with this track (and most of the album, too!)
St. Vincent - Birth in Reverse: St. Vincent is a frustrating artist for me. One minute I love her music, the next I'm frustrated by her apparent desire to be weird for the sake of being weird. Occasionally, she ties it all together.
The War on Drugs - Eyes to the Wind: Red-eyed, weary, hopeful, and gorgeous.
Perfect Pussy - Driver: While the back half of Perfect Pussy's debut record is a bit of a mess, Driver kicks the record off in arresting fashion.
Future Islands - Doves: Future Islands often feels like a suburban dad singing songs that Cyndi Lauper would've rocked back in the day. This is a perfect example of that, and it's catchy as hell.
Howler - Don't Wanna: It's hard for me not to love a Minnesota band aping The Replacements.
NO - Leave the Door Wide Open: NO played a studio session for opbmusic earlier this year and this song in particular just wormed it's way into my head.
Tom Brosseau - Today is a Bright New Day: Bittersweet and full of hope is Brosseau's wheelhouse. If you like folk music and haven't picked up a Tom Brosseau record, you're missing out.
Afghan Whigs - The Lottery: Greg Dulli doing Greg Dulli things. Enough said.
Black Prairie - The 84: I dare you to find a catchier chorus. In fact, I double dare you.
Wye Oak - The Tower: A little different sound from Wye Oak on their new record. This one just wormd it's way into my head.
Pink Mountaintops - Ambulance City: This record is a mish-mash of styles, but the driving opener just howls.
tUnE-yArDs - Water Fountain: Unique.
Black Pistol Fire - Hipster Shakes: As long as bands like Black Pistol Fire are around, The Black Keys can keep diddling around with refining their sound for maximum commercial appeal all they want. Raw, rough, and catchy without giving a single fuck.
Kishi Bashi - The Ballad of Mr. Steak: Delightful, silly fun.
Sharon Van Etten - Every Time the Sun Comes Up: Heartbreaking and gorgeous.
Bob Mould - The War: In his 50s, Mould can still rock harder than most half his age. This song proves it beyond a doubt.
Jack White - That Bat Black Licorice: Jack is at his best when he's pissed off, and on this track, he comes off as flat-out furious.
Glass Towers - Halcyon: Bright and shimmering, a wonderful song for summertime.
Strand of Oaks - Goshen '97: A surprising record and surprisingly rollicking opening song from a band that is usually sparsely beautiful.