The Key’s Top 15 Albums of 2014

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top 15 albums of 2014
This is the music that moved us this year.

Here at The Key, we’ve gone through four year-end best-of seasons since launching in August of 2010 without weighing in on top albums. Why did we change that this year? Simply put: music in 2014 was outstanding. On the local front, on the national front, from pop to rock to experimental and hip-hop, there was a tremendous offering of front-to-back solid records. Annie Clark got mind-bendy on St. Vincent; Tim Showalter got emotional on HEAL; Sylvan Esso caught us by surprise on their self-titled debut; Cayetana blew up in a big way on their debut Nervous Like Me, voted the best record of the year by our staff of contributors. To narrow it down to the top 15 albums of 2014 is to exclude hundreds of other worthy inclusion, so you can read our contributors’ individual top fives here. Then again, there is power in consensus, and these are the albums we collectively agreed were the best.

15. Eno / Hyde – Someday World (Warp) -One of two collaborations between electronic music pioneer Brian Eno and Underworld frontman Karl Hyde released this year, Someday World came with little fanfare, which made me all the more curious to take a listen.  It’s a more melodic and accessible work than either artist has released in a long while. But the entire unexpectedness is what floors me about the album. Most people think of Eno as an odd creator of ambient sounds, but the man loves to sing and gets to show off his voice on the wonderful harmonies of “A Man Wakes Up.” And while Hyde tends to come across as cynical and abrasive in his music, his performance the closing “To Us All” is surprisingly emotional.  Someday World is not a meeting of two men with stale ideas; instead, it shows Eno and Hyde are making vibrant songs that can run circles around most groups working today. -Maureen Walsh

14. Phantogram – Voices (Republic) – Gripping listeners with a compelling sound (referred to as “trip-hop” by some), electro-rock duo Phantogram surpassed their stellar 2010 debut with this year’s Voices. On it, producers/musicians Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter deliver an album charged with dance tracks like “Black Out Days” and “Fall In Love.” Give a closer listen to Barthel’s haunting vocals layered over Carter’s synths on their own homage to hipster phenomena/hero, “Bill Murray.” Fans are just as jazzed about the effort; Phantogram sold out a two-night stint at Union Transfer just this October. – Skye Leppo

13. The Afghan Whigs – Do to the Beast (Sub Pop) – Nobody asked for a reminder of the timelessness of 90s grunge era brooding, and the tremendous capability it has to keep rock n’ roll relevant in an era increasingly dependent on quirky trends and multi-hyphenated genre crossovers. But The Afghan Whigs decided to deliver one anyhow. Do to the Beast, the band’s first LP in 16 years, is a staggering album of tried and true tropes presented with epic confidence and thundering delivery.  Listening to Greg Dulli’s voice crack over and over on the lyric “It kills to watch you love another” reaches down to the very soul of us all. – Matthew Shaver

12. Taylor Swift – 1989 (Big Machine) – Credit is due to songwriting partners Max Martin and Jack Antonoff (among others) just as much as Swift herself for necessitating the use of “weaponized hooks” when discussing 1989 — this is some aggressively successful pop music. But when “Style” or “Out of the Woods” or “Blank Space” burrows itself into the latent recesses of your brain and soundtracks your subconscious like a winning pop song should, we should also reconsider Swift’s marketed persona in the wake of 1989 (the other pillar of pop music). The naive, NYC Tourism Ambassador is a charmingly cringe-worthy identity to adopt, but also crucial to the Taylor Swift narrative; like, of course this instructional video would exist. – Marc Snitzer

11. The Hotelier – Home, Like Noplace Is There (Tiny Engines) – Aside from a niche group of consumers, the word “emo” sends people running for the door. The Hotelier’s sophomore album Home, Like Noplace is There got people giving the genre another look. This album stands apart from others in its ability to cultivate a powerful narrative. Each song builds off the next, creating a story that evolves with each track. Unlike other albums within their genre, The Hotelier’s more dramatic songs like “Your Deep Rest” come off as thought-provoking, not whiney or relentlessly sad. No matter what kind of music you are into, it’s hard not to appreciate the narrative focus and attention to detail on Home, Like Noplace is There– Rachel Del Sordo

10. Modern Baseball – You’re Gonna Miss It All (Run For Cover) – Too many times have I made mental notes of “Oh, I know this exact feeling” while listening through You’re Gonna Miss it All. Yes, I too have chosen to stay home alone on Friday night. Yes, punker-than-thou types have criticized me. And yup, I have skipped class to instead order food far too many times to count. It’s a testament to Jake Ewald and Brendan Lukens’ songwriting when they’re so capable of tapping into such nuanced and specific moments of young adulthood. It’s a period of life that is often overlooked and scoffed at, but Modern Baseball contextualizes fretful youth and anxious confusion — through quirky, poppy, punky songs — into a thing of beauty. – Marc Snitzer

9. Ryan Adams – Ryan Adams (Pax AM) – During interviews with The New York Times and NME earlier this year, Ryan Adams revealed that his latest album was the result of scrapping an entire album he considered too sad and straight up “slow, adult shit.” Instead, the prolific singer-songwriter delivered a solid set of electric guitar driven rock n’ roll songs for his fourteenth studio album, Ryan Adams. Beneath his complex instrumental arrangements lies lyrics revealing themes of heartbreak, struggle, and regret. Also scattered throughout the album are subdued acoustic songs such as “My Wrecking Ball.” This variation provides a more intimate connection to the lyrics and an gripping pacing throughout the album; repeated listens reveal subtleties within the lyrics, melodies, and harmonies that come through with an emotional punch. Sonically, the music is very different from the vast majority of music being released today. But comprised of chord-heavy heartland rock, not to mention the tension and release of emotional lyrics, it is very much Ryan Adams. – Michelle Montgomery

8. TV on the Radio – Seeds (Harvest) – When the fifth album from Brooklyn art rockers TV on the Radio was released in November, I was instantly hooked. The single, “Happy Idiot” is an enthralling and magnetic track about being so stupidly happy that you’re standing in the middle of the road, waving at cars, unaware of the rest of your surroundings. Seeds as a whole connects musical bridges and hones together indie, funk, synth pop, and melancholy rock. It’s got that total feel-good, emotional turmoil thing going on, and i don’t think anyone is complaining. – Rachel Barrish

7. St. Vincent – St. Vincent (Lomo Vista) – The alluring and transcendent Annie Clark exposed her new self this year with St. Vincent’s fourth self-titled album. Along with Clark’s her silver hair and cyborg persona, the new album released on Loma Vista Records sounds like it was made in another world. Opener “Rattlesnake” delves into a story of Clark running through the woods in the nude, being chased by a rattlesnake, afraid of getting bit. Elsewhere, songs like “Birth in Reverse” give a more pinching rendition about growing up and getting old. St. Vincent is an encapsulation of both edgy and playful sounds, making you fall deeply in love while simultaneously wanting to run far, far away. Clark has become an icon of musical intelligence, consistently dazzling and impressing us all. – Rachel Barrish

6. Sylvan Esso – Sylvan Esso (Partisan) – As part of Mountain Man, Amelia Meath’s smooth and soothing vocals melded well as part of a group and provided a rich tapestry of Appalachian folk. With Nick Sanborn in Sylvan Esso, her voice is ripped from the a cappella melodies of her partners and placed starkly on display.  Sanborn lends them playfully simple beats to dance with.  While not melodically complex, the two intertwine so seamlessly, and often times sensually, making the band’s self-titled debut an electro-folk masterpiece that should please the EDM and folk crowds in equal measure. – Matthew Shaver

5. Restorations – LP3 (SideOneDummy) – Restorations accomplished a lot with LP3: It’s not only a worthy follow-up to 2013’s mammoth LP2, it’s the best work of the band’s career thus far, expanding upon previously established ideas with a sort of palpable, calculated rebellion. The band found their sound—regularly thunderous and dense while remaining impressively melodic and often introspective, a sort of amalgamation of Americana and post-rock through a fiercely punk lens—almost immediately upon formation, but at this point appear much more comfortable in their own skin as performers and songwriters. It shows in how slow ballads like “Misprint” can coexist so seamlessly with searing anthems like “Tiny Prayers,” and how a track like “Separate Songs” can sound so much like a “radio single” without straying from the formula. – Bryne Yancey

4. The War on Drugs – Lost in the Dream (Secretly Canadian) – Let’s ignore our immense hometown pride for a second and acknowledge when a contentious act has reached its greatest creative height. Adam Granduciel and co. have done just that on Lost in the Dream, a remarkable ode to creative and personal introspection. This is the rare album that gives back to listeners as much as it demands of them, revealing hidden instrumental flourishes and lyrical cues with every repeat listen. For those who seek compelling sonic landscapes, Granduciel’s wandering minimalist guitar interlocks with Dave Hartley’s understatedly virtuosic bass lines and Robbie Coltrane’s ethereal keyboards. Granduciel’s raspy croons and existential desperation-laced poetry are grounded in this atmosphere, inseparable and unprivileged in the aural landscape but no less stunning. Shooting stars like “Red Eyes” sit comfortably around supernova-growers “Eyes to the Wind” and “Disappearing”, where every lamentation to being “a bit run down at the moment” feels as urgent as the building instrumentation would compel you to believe. Few bands can mine such familiar territory and make it sound exciting and fresh, but The War on Drugs have managed to do that in spectacular form. They’re one of only a few acts (most of whom also hail from this city) making Americana sound familiar and relevant for generations not raised on the cult of Springsteen. For that reason, and so much more, they deserve at least a few spins in contemplative solitude. – Sameer Rao

3. Strand of Oaks – HEAL (Dead Oceans) – While Guardians of the Galaxy offered up the awesome mix, a local Philadelphia band offered up the ultimate mixtape for 2014 — a record that sounds familiar and artistically jarring at the same time with results that amaze the ears in new ways with each listen. The band, Strand of Oaks, is led by a glorious puzzle: Timothy Showalter. As long beard and tattoos abound, he wields an introspective and emotional pen. The record in question, HEAL, is a measured affair of pure pop rock and the deep chasms of electronic dirges. The work’s lynchpin, “Goshen ’97,” is instantly anthemic. And to see them live is to see rock passion spill out of every syllable, guitar chord and percussive exaltation. When Showalter leapt into the crowd at Union Transfer in early December to hug anyone and everyone it was HEAL’s grand conclusion — music as love and gratitude, a pure and powerful message for 2014 and beyond. – Chris Sikich

2. Run The Jewels – Run the Jewels 2 (Mass Appeal) RTJ2 isn’t meant to please your senses, make you start dancing, or comfort you (although if it does that, then kudos). Decidedly unlike most contemporary hip-hop – and firmly placing itself in a lineage of confrontational artists like Public Enemy and Sly Stone – it’s designed to hit you squarely in the face. You’re meant to puzzle over the blunt-force rhymes that ex-Outkast affiliate Killer Mike and legendary Definitive Jux head honcho El-P spit at gatling-gun pace, so fast that you hear new witticisms even after dozens of spins. El’s searing, eccentric production trademark is meant to unsettle you at every listen – a sign that an artist has shown you something new, changing your perceptions of what beats or music is supposed to sound like. You have to take this journey with them, live in the contradictions between raunchy sexual escapades and deadly encounters with police (the latter of which, on album stand-out “Early”, incorporates famed Beyoncé collaborator Boots to devastatingly beautiful effect). But in an era where rage against the old guard permeates all aspects of people’s lives (especially, it should be noted, the lives of black and brown people still enduring the brutality of that guard’s outdated values), RTJ2 is a sobering and exciting reminder of what other lives art can reveal. – Sameer Rao

1. Cayetana – Nervous Like Me (Tiny Engines) – There’s a point where songwriting gets so specific, so personal and nuanced, that it all of a sudden transcends idiosyncracy and becomes universal. That’s what makes Cayetana’s debut LP Nervous Like Me such a winning record. Whether the experiences are her own, imagined or some combination of the two, frontwoman Augusta Koch tells lyrical stories you instantly relate to. Stories of emotional dependency and toxic friendships (“Serious Things are Stupid,” “Dirty Laundry”), of the beautiful transience of twentysomething life (“Scott Get The Van, I’m Moving,” “South Philly”), of discovering empowerment in solitude (“Madame B”). But it’s not just the subject matter that makes this a great album – it’s the hooks. These are some catchy-as-hell songs, most clocking in around or under three minutes; most moving at a brisk pace, propelled by Kelly Olsen’s aggressive drums and Allegra Anka’s wandering, New Order-ish bass counterpoints; most featuring endlessly sing-along-able passages. The title, Nervous Like Me, is also apt. Our contributing writer Bryne Yancey pointed that the album has a nervous energy undercurrent in the frenzied drumbeats and jagged guitars and Koch’s tender, quivering delivery. You can feel that tension, that uncertainty and fear, and in her words she spells out explicity why it exists. Even though you haven’t specifically been in the same place, you know how she feels, you can relate. And that is the power of strong, honest songwriting. – John Vettese

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