Let us keep the momentum and move right along.
20. White Lung – Deep Fantasy
Bands can be heavy, but never use that heaviness to their advantage. White Lung make the most of heavy riffing, heavy drumming, heavy thumping. They use heaviness to accentuate singer Mish Way, to hightlight her vocals without ever drowning them out. When I was introduced to Deep Fantasy, I figured the band must crowd stages with guitars and musicians in order to achieve that level of heavniess. When I saw White Lung perform for the release of Deep Fantasy, there just four people on stage, just the essentials. The band lost nothing live. The stacked guitar parts on “Drown With the Monsters” are even more impressive when it’s a single guitar backed with bass and drums. The band’s creativity and technical acumen shines in the face of simplicity. On a song like “Wrong Star” the switches from piercing melody lines to chunky rhythm parts to wanky pull-off riffs to shredding neck runs is a marriage of necessity and skill. There’s more than one way to punch someone in the face. White Lung are expert face punchers.
19. Future – Honest
Future’s Honest was another album that should have come out ages ago, but was delayed for whatever reasons. In one iteration, it was called Future Hendrix, but the Atlanta songwriter settled on the title from one of his most emotional songs. Future emotes all over the album. He is in love many ways. He loves himself, he loves his songs, he loves Ciara, he loves his life. Sometimes, these loves come in conflict (and the Future/ Ciara union that warmed hearts went through bumps due to Future’s indiscretions), but Honest is best when this happens. The way Future bounces from huge tracks like “Move That Dope” to the aforementioned “Honest” (through the more-sweetly-titled-than-it-actually-is “My Momma”) is confident and admirable, if not always a smash. The love song “I Won” has a tenderness in spite of its maniacal possessive nature.
Honest is best in its quieter moments. Tracks like “Benz Frendz” featuring Andre 3000 remind you of both artists’ intensity. On songs like “I Be U” and “I’ll Be Yours” Future splits the melodic themes from “Drunk In Love” into two versions, the former darker and low key and the latter brighter and more tender. Future’s introduction on Pluto was spacey, and Honest remains a bit scattered. Future’s trademarks are all over pop music though, so when he accesses the fragmented parts of his personality and style, he is able to do so, because he helped popularize them so effectively.
18. Todd Terje – It’s Album Time
Todd Terje’s brand of summery Nordic disco has been floating around for years. Through a bunch of EPs and singles with colorful and crisp artwork, Terje developed an aesthetic. His songs were interesting and he kept his own sound while producing distinctive tracks. When it came time for an album – Album Time, if you will – he linked his oeuvre without treading over old territory. Older jam “Strandbar” was cut from its seven-plus minutes version into a breezy four-and-a-half minutes. By shedding some of the longer songs, Terje formed bonds and chains. The familiar “Strandbar” leads into the new “Delorean Dynamite” taking the themes and chugging synths of the first song to a more futuristic place. Of the older tracks, the only one that seems tacked on is “Inspector Norse” but as one of Terje’s strongest tracks, he makes it work. Perhaps the album’s strongest moment is the biggest departure for Terje. He enlists Bryan Ferry to take on Robert Palmer’s “Johnny and Mary.” It starts without the shimmering, quick beats of the other songs. The cover is misty and grows dense as Terje adds to it. Sometimes albums are thrown together without regard for theme or flow, but Todd Terje approached his first full-length as a complete unit. The care and attention yields a good album continuing the sonic tropes Terje has molded over his career.
17. Joyce Manor – Never Hungover Again
There is no bullshit on Never Hungover Again. There is no time for bullshit on a twenty-minute album. Joyce Manor do not try to cram as many songs into twenty minutes as they could. Instead, they cut out unnecessary reprises and third verses that no one really cares about. They still indulge in those tried-and-true pop-punk tropes – heartache, shouty young men, sans-guitar verses carried by bass lines, y’know, the essentials! Never Hungover Again is confident and lively in a way that so much music won’t allow itself to be. Why should it matter if a great song is only 106 seconds long?
16. Taylor Swift – 1989
One of the stranger things about the release of Taylor Swift’s 1989 was the absence of object-of-affection speculation regarding the songs’ subjects. During each cycle, it was almost tradition to break down each song and connect it with a romance from her life. Swift was very visible between the release of Red and 1989 – becoming a real-estate mogul, moving to New York, and assembling a legion of famous, beautiful friends to attend 4th of July outings and birthday parties that probably caused the offices of Tumblr and Instagram to buy additional servers to handle the traffic generated. Her love life, the subject of so much speculation by fans, media, and detractors, was out of the picture. It’s odd considering many of the songs on 1989 are love/at-least-desire songs, but the new people who entered Swift’s life in the public sphere were friends, collaborators, court side compatriots, New York city politicians, and beleaguered NBA scoring masters. Sure, these songs are about people but more they are about who Taylor Swift is these days.
As the lines between popular genres continue to blur, Swift’s insistence that 1989 was her first full pop album seemed more like a statement to remove herself from her contemporaries rather than any actual musical distinction. As Deadspin’s Rob Harvilla pointed out, Taylor Swift’s music has always been pop. Harvilla does not enjoy 1989 as much as Swift’s earlier releases, but he does hit that Swift’s going pop is not as sharp as her previous efforts. Those two versions of Swift are not incongruous, but sometimes they do clash. The album’s low is probably “Bad Blood” when Swift attempts to use her younger journal scribble bite to go after a friendship soured (probably a friendship with Katy Perry, but regardless!). The formless pop on 1989 might not be as sharp, but it is bright, brash, and takes full advantage of Swift’s ability as a songwriter to craft earworms.
The New York Times’ Jon Caramanica details Taylor Swift’s split with country and her idea of pop in his review of the album. Caramanica also talks about how the album deliberately separates itself from the current pop landscape. In his estimation, “[Swift’s] idea of pop music harks back to a period — the mid-1980s — when pop was less overtly hybrid” a time mixing “the human and the digital.” Doing this “allows her to stake out popular turf without having to keep up with the latest microtrends, and without being accused of cultural appropriation.” In reality, Swift is more subtle and selective in taking her influences and emulating them (at least in the music; the “Shake It Off” video is more complicated in terms of cultural appropriation, but this has seemingly become a minor point surrounding the album). Taylor Swift knows the pop landscape well and has collaborated with super-producer Max Martin for her past two albums. Musically, Swift has not often collaborated with friends much on her albums (a few tracks on Red being the exception), but her friend Jack Antonoff’s ascension as a well-regarded pop songwriter coincided with 1989‘s cycle that collaboration would be appropriate and obvious. Taylor Swift knows what is going on around her.
Swift is able to pick her spots and sounds without influences dominating her work. For all the 1980’s sounds on 1989, the songs sound more like something from CHVRCHES or off the Drive soundtrack rather than New Order. The filtered influences still are surrounded by 2014 pop conventions, drums booming and dropping in ways you could never program a pad in 1986. The shimmers and echoes of 100 emoji jammer “I Wish You Would” start off as maybe Swift’s most 80’s-leaning track, but the chorus slams you down, the beat getting bigger and rattling your teeth loosened by pounds of pure sugar.
Swift’s kiss-off on “Shake It Off” is a master course in playing it both ways. Swift uses the song to to draw a line between herself and the rest of pop, but does so while grabbing pop bits and motifs like the most successful Super Toy Run in history. Swift is too smart to wander into previously coined pop phrases like “the players gonna play/ and the haters gonna hate” or “I’m dancing on my own.” Swift knows exactly where these are from and you can do nothing to stop her from using them. The horns at the beginning of the song sound like a more palatable version of a TNGHT song, and only a year after Kanye West sampled TNGHT on Yeezus. Taylor Swift has maintainted a mastery of pop for a while. 1989 isn’t a masterpiece, but Swift is the best pop artist around, regardless of what genre she uses to self-classify. My biggest problem remains that she didn’t title the album THIS. SICK. BEAT.
15. Against Me! – Transgender Dysphoria Blues
In light of Laura JaneGrace’s decision to come out as trans and reveal her life so openly to fans and the music world, Against Me!’s back catalog became a series of hints and allusions to Grace’s identity. The lyrics from the second verse of older track “The Ocean” suppose an alternate life for Grace, one full of sunny beaches and loving days with family.
For how forthright and emotional Against Me! has always been, I feel shitty and reductive whenever I come across something in an older song and connect dots. Dots need not be connects because Laura Jane Grace is out there talking to you and me and everyone about deeply personal aspects of her life. In addition to that, Against Me! continues to put out strong, funny, political, and emotional punk rock.
Transgender Dysphoria Blues addresses trans issues and emotions more than any of Against Me!’s previous albums, but it is not a concept album about those things. The experiences and emotions that inspired the album are from one woman, but as always, Against Me! are able to make those emotions resonate deeply with listeners. There’s a unique point-of-view that leads up to the context of the stand-out “Two Coffins” but by itself the song wallops you with the intense feelings of loss. The microphones catch the last gasp of the song, the cymbals, guitars, and breaths shimmering away into a quick nothingness.
The album is even more impressive given the personnel changes the band went through between its last album and this one’s January release. In between, solo versions of the songs appeared on the True Trans EP. Even in those spare arrangements, it was clear the band would be just as striking as it always had been. The acoustic versions of “True Trans Soul Rebel” and “Fuckmylife666” turned from jaunty punk folk songs to rollicking fully formed punk anthems.
14. Duck Sauce – Quack
While Duck Sauce are making fun of dance music and DJ stuff most of the time (see: skits on this album, the video for “Barbara Streisand”, the version of that video they remade with HBO and Luis Guzman), it is the sort of joking you can only do if you have a deep knowledge and affection for what you are lampooning. You must carefully plot each joke, lining up minutiae and esoterica to get everything juuuust right. In constructing this boisterous, fun, joke of a thing they do, A-Trak and Armand Van Helden made something equally nostalgic and gleeful. It’s a loving tribute to dumb things that both points out the dumb things and squeezes every ounce of joy from them. Many of the tracks appeared earlier as singles, but Duck Sauce add to the number of bouncy tunes and give them a strange radio-scanning context by adding prank phone calls, New Jersey club calendars, and alien signals to Earth.
13. Modern Baseball – You’re Gonna Miss It All
A problem many of my friends have with Modern Baseball’s You’re Gonna Miss It All is a lyric in opener “Fine, Great” about Instagram. They say it takes them out of the song, a reference tying the song to a specific time period. Given the resurgence of emo/ pop-punk, the line almost acts to tie Modern Baseball to this iteration of the form rather than its forebears. I mean, can you imagine if blink-182 entered their formative years with the ability to post pictures of butts on the internet? They might have not even made it to Dude Ranch because they would have been too busy. Busy with butts.
Modern Baseball are the most snotty of this wave of bands, smirking along while they detail major and mostly minor heartbreaks. Somehow, the band also might have the widest range musically. Their second album has straight forward pop-punk songs like “Charlie Black” and “Broken Cash Machine.” They break these up with jangly, almost country songs that revert to their usual sound in the chorus like “Going To Bed Now” and “Notes.” Two down-tuned acoustic songs (“Timmy Bowers” and “Pothole”) cast shadows on the album, showing that the up-tempo and jovial Modern Baseball songs have some hurt they are hiding. They can only address them in dark and somber tones. Bummers about photo apps and graduation parties might not seem that major at first, but sometimes there is more going on.
12. Perfect Pussy – Say Yes To Love
There are five members of Perfect Pussy. I knew this from photos accompanying articles and assumed these five members functioned traditionally, with a singer and drummer and arrangement of guitar/ bass guitar players. More accurately, the five members function as a four-piece band, raging through songs while member Shaun Sutkus calmly stands behind a table of gear, creating a controlled cacophony that simultaneously amplifies the band while battling against them. Throughout the first time I saw Perfect Pussy in concert, singer Meredith Graves’ voice was buried deeper than the recorded mixes. However, she and members Ray McAndrew, Garrett Koloski, and Greg Ambler fed off of each other to create one of the more powerful and energetic performances I had seen. Songs melted into each other. I lost my place following the song “Interference Fits.” It didn’t matter as the band gave themselves to the noise bobbing and jumping, dancing and air-punching. It was an exhaustive performance for the band and the audience. The set ended abruptly and appropriately, and the band went to tend to their after-show duties, putting away gear or checking with friends or cutting across the crowd, lighting a cigarette indoors as they shut out the noise for a moment’s respite.
11. Angel Olsen – Burn Your Fire For No Witness
Angel Olsen’s second album was the first great consensus record of 2014. Everyone loved this record upon its release in February. The love endured too, as Burn Your Fire For No Witness kept popping up on year-end lists. For a moment early in the year, Olsen was undeniable. “Hi-Five” – her tremolo-soaked plea for human understanding – thumped in like so many buzzy tracks before it. The sentiments crept along through the year, as the world around crowded uncomfortably and depressingly. “Are you lonely too?”
“Are you lonely too?”
“HI-FIVE! SO AM I.”
Not every track was rousing to the human spirit – the darker “White Fire” and the bare “Enemy” for example – but Olsen was able to capture hearts on every track.
NEXT TIME: Canadian beats and free things and songs about dog adoption and burnt-down hotels.