The Top Ten Albums of This Excellent Year In Music, The Year of Our Lord 2014 (TTTATEYIMTYOL 2014)

Life is short. That’s why it always needs a soundtrack.

Disclaimer: I love music. It makes me wax poetic, pump my arms while working out in public fitness facilities, sing to aloud at jarring pitches well beyond my limited vocal range and a host of other faux pas.

Music is the sound of the earth, more so than the crash of waves on shores, wind rustling through trees or patter of rain on a cold dark night. It’s past and the present and the future, emotions, places, colors, lights and motion — reflected and refracted through our hearts and minds.

Humans produce music…but in many ways, it produces us.

As the days get shorter and the year draws to a close, I bring you the top picks from my modest corner of tastes and sensibilities. It’s been a remarkable fast year. A slow year. A crazy year. A year of love. A year of joy. And this is the soundtrack to that year: rated, scaled, and wrapped with a bow and tie. This is The Top Ten Albums of This Excellent Year In Music, The Year of Our Lord 2014.

10. BANKS // goddess
What: Equal parts radio-ready poppiness and fuck-the-status-quo indie antics.
Listen:Begging For Thread”; Good luck getting that chorus our of your head.

Banks hates pop. She hates its predictability and its romantic, sunshine-blue-skies-and-butterfies outlook on the world when her reality is one of heartbreak and fucked-up exes. But Banks also loves pop — and all of its ear-catching, head-bopping foot-stomping glory. The result of this contradiction is apparent by the end of percussive, synth-drenched opener “Alibi”: Banks aspires to be more than a Madonna or primadonna of pop. She wants full goddess status. And if her delicate, ethereal voice layered over hypnotically catchy beats in standout track “Fuck ‘Em, Only We Know” is any indicator, her peers can do nothing but bow down to this morose, catchy idol she’s given us.

9. SAINTSENECA // dark arc
What: A burly man-beard of folk shaped into a roguishly charming mustache.
Listen:Takmit”; Who said that indie folk can’t have breakdowns?

There’s something fascinating about folk as a genre: from its roots in blue-color work ethic to its rustic, jam-session-in-the-woods antics. With Dark Arc, Saintseneca have crafted an opus that transcends the inauthentic folk revivalism that bogs down most of their peers. Instead, their flawless songwriting and sharp lyricism reveal a peerless band informed by Appalachian mountain music and the explosive recklessness of punk. I’ve heard them described as “foot-stomping folk”, and after listening to cuts like “Takmit” and the climax of opener “Bloodbath”, that seemingly silly categorization rings true indeed. This album will have you clapping your hands, stomping your feet, strumming your banjo and growing your beard. But it won’t be until nasal-voiced frontman Zac Little croons the chorus to “The Good Die Young” that a chill will creep its way down your spine:

If only the good ones die young
I hope your corruption comes
Swift like a thief in the night

8. PHANTOGRAM // voices
What: Artists so good that I don’t care if they’re fast asleep on their laurels.
Listen: Howl at the Moon”; Pulsating nocturnal pop.

It’s no secret that “Don’t Move” is one of my all-time favorite pop songs. It’s a perfect formulation of driving beats, stunning vocals, catchy sampling and gorgeous guitar work. In fact, Phantogram’s 2011 Nightlife EP near singlehandedly helped me fall in love with pop all over again after a full decade. And so, to my expectant ears at first listen, Voices suffered from a supreme case of over-hype and felt like a stale tour of the group’s old territory. Fortunately, it only took a few listens for me to pick up on little snippets of my beloved Phantogram scattered throughout the album — the phat, thumping synth beat which drives the chorus of “Fall in Love”, the tongue-in-cheek solemnness of bizarely-titled “Bill Murray” and the urgent, sinister tempo of “Howling at the Moon”. Piece by piece, the walls of my disappointment tumbled down I began to fall head-over-heals for this album. But the true breakthrough moment came when I discovered the tenuous beauty contained within “Never Going Home” — instrumentalist Josh Carter’s first vocal debut. His slightly off-key, imperfect voice struck me as profoundly honest as he confesses: “If this is love / I’m never going home”.

7. LANA DEL REY // ultraviolence
What: A portrait of the broken American dream from an unexpected source.
Listen:Brooklyn Baby”; A swan-song and epitaph for our entire generation.

They say I’m too young to love you
I don’t know what I need
They think I don’t understand
The freedom land of the ‘70s

So begins “Brooklyn Baby”, a stunning standout on this unexpectedly haunting record. The last two lines are particularly poignant, for the track — featuring Lana’s voice sounding fraile and faded, like an old vinyl record — nods to some of that decade’s greatest artists, including Pink Floyd, Penny Lane and even a touch of Nancy Sinatra. That an artist whose last album was a mainstream snore-fest could evolve her sound so profoundly in just two years is astounding to me. Her morose croons and reverb-drenched guitar riffs pair perfectly with a lyrical narrative of our generation’s downfall vis-é-vis drugs, cheap sex and chasing dreams that aren’t our own. In the end, Ultraviolence is a bold statement: Del Rey has emerged from the chrysalis like the fluttering, downtrodden butterfly she’s become.

6. FOUR YEAR STRONG // go down in history
What: Rip-roaring, uplifting pop-core for the masses.
Listen:Go Down in History”; This one will make you want to hug your mom.

Go Down In History is one of those albums that acts like a surge of caffeine through my veins — an infectious collection of sunny, feel-good tracks. While 2011's In Some Way, Shape or Form was a foray into thrash and nu-metal elements, the new EP sees the band returning as the charismatic tour-de-force beloved by everyone who has ever moshed. Numbers like “Living Proof of a Stubborn Youth” are so chock-full of catchy hooks, danceable breakdowns and fist-pumping bass drops that it’s impossible to imagine them being anything short of fan favorites at their energetic live shows. Moreover, the record is a testament to the power of feel-good music: it doesn’t need to be technically impressive or overtly original to get the crowd jumping and shoving towards the front row.

5. PORTER ROBINSON // sad machine
What: An absurdly cute and touching love song — penned by a robot.
Listen:Sad Machine”; She depends on you, she depends on you.

My previous experiences with Porter Robinson involved his extensive discography full of technically impressive but otherwise unremarkable dubstep records. Yet his 2014 single Sad Machine (yes, just one song!) utterly astounded me and stole my heart. The beat-heavy, glitchy song tells the story of a lonely robot and her estranged human lover — a bizarre concept, to be sure, but one that’s executed flawlessly. The stuttering computerized female vocals sound vulnerable and fragile, but soaring and beautiful when accompanied by Porter’s own smooth baritone. And when these two hopelessly star-crossed lovers — one made of carbon, the other, code — join their voices together, the resulting duet (and the infectious beats beneath it) is simply breathtaking.

4. FIT FOR A KING // slave to nothing
What: Christian metal that inspires and thrills with equal measure.
Listen:A Greater Sense of Self”; Save me from myself.

I vividly remember the look on my friend Ethan’s face when we first heard the bridge on “Cleanse My Soul”, in which vocalist Ryan Kirby gives his most powerful — and frightening — performance to-date. His distinctive, throaty roar sounds at once commanding and otherworldly, yet the crushing heaviness the band brings to bear in moments like these are tempered by choruses and hooks that wouldn’t be out of place on a Linkin Park album. These harsh/soft dynamics, horrifically overutilized by most bands, are performed masterfully throughout the album, most notably in “A Greater Sense of Self”, which is easily their most accomplished song of all time. As the album’s name suggests, Fit For A King posit a message of redemption and everlasting life — even if they first take you through the pits of their personal hell. Roars Kirby during the chorus of explosive opener “Kill The Pain”:

Kill the pain, show me the way to go
Kill the pain, guide me back to you
Guide me back to you, guide me back to you

3. YELLOWCARD // lift a sail
What: A knock-out release from a band that stubbornly refuses to give up.
Listen: “Transmission Home”; One of the most powerful choruses of the year.

Some bands continue to toil away fruitlessly far past their prime, refusing to accept the inevitable end of their relevance. Yellowcard is no such band, for they are still just as spry as they were in their formative years. After all, 2012's Southern Air demonstrated that they were still capable of producing the greatest music of their careers a full 12 years after their inception. Lift A Sail, not surprisingly, is no different — chock-full of the infectious anthems, soaring choruses and delightful ballads that we have come to expect from this incredibly consistent and prodigious band. Yellowcard’s melodies have a unique, indescribable flavor to them, a sonic signature that gets in your head and heart alike and embeds itself there. If masterful cuts like “Illuminate” are any indicator, they’ll continue producing this masterful brand pop-punk well into their second decade.

2. MEMPHIS MAY FIRE // unconditional
What: The year’s most inspiring release, sure to win hearts for God.
Listen: “Unconditional”; A reminder that we are always loved by our creator.

This is no ordinary love!
Listen up, listen up,
This is no ordinary love!
Listen up, this is unconditional!

Matty Mullins, Memphis May Fire’s beloved frontman, has made a name for himself with lyrical storytelling that uplifts and spreads the good news beneath his band’s thunderous cacophony. Regardless, Unconditional still ups the ante with some of the his most poignant and in-your-face tracks ever. He fearlessly broaches issues like bullying and self-worth (“Beneath The Skin”) witnessing to others (“Need To Be”) and hypocrisy within the church (“Pharisees”). The latter levels a scathing indictment against so-called Christian leaders who spread hate in one of the moment’s most powerful lines that precedes a thunderous breakdown: “Realize that it was Grace that saved you, too / So do us all a favor / Keep your self-righteous mouth shut!” Musically, the band brings these messages to life with a perfectly-concocted mixture of vocal hooks a-la Matty interspersed with top-notch breakdowns and shredding. It’s not groundbreaking, but that’s not the point — like a devotional, Unconditional provides a daily dose of inspiration and hope that sets the heart aflame.

1. LOW ROAR // 0
What: A truly stunning musical piece — emotionally cathartic and the most incredible album of 2014.
Listen: “Nobody Loves Me Like You”; Lonesomeness perfectly set to music.

Here’s the thing: the concept of Low Roar as a project is just as beautiful as the music itself. In 2011, musician Ryan Karazijah packed up everything he owned and left sunny California for the windswept hills of Reykjavik, Iceland. When listening to songs off his self-titled album like “Nobody Else”, you can’t help but close your eyes and picture the beautiful, quiet desolation of the Icelandic countryside, illuminated by the weak arctic sun overhead.

0's inherent beauty lies in the fact that it feels like a personal artifact — written by a man living alone in a small cabin on the tundra, full of longing and heartbreak. Intimate cuts like “Nobody Loves Me Like You” pair Karazijah’s fragile falsetto with accordion and harmonica before building to a chill-inducing climax. The bombastic grandeur is a radically new dynamic in Karazijah’s music, which was, prior to this release, focused on the sound of lonesome barrenness. This new and most welcome dynamic is most evident in central track “Phantoms”, which ends in an explosive orchestral overture. It’s the sound of someone having a critical mid-life epiphany, a life-changing moment of self-realization and catharsis — then waking up to realize it was all a dream. “Vampire On My Fridge” and “I’m Leaving” up the ante even further with the introduction of glitchy, electronic elements and that pulse beneath horns, strings and gentle, intimate crooning. Each break, each lull, each flourish is placed right where it belongs, and it’s beautiful.

What Karazijah has managed to do with O is simply astounding : craft an album that’s not only more than the sum of its parts, but with parts that are as masterfully crafted individually as a whole. At once lonely and barren, cinematic, soaring, tragic, cathartic — this is a rare album that conjures up feelings of love and triumph and loss, projecting it for any who care to see upon the grey hills of Iceland.

(No particular order)

Godspeed! You Black Emperor — F#A# (Infinity)
Manchester Orchestra — Cope
Cedar — Human/Nature
Bear’s Den — Agape
Meg Myers — Make A Shadow
Midnight Faces — The Fire is Gone
Circa Survive — Descensus
Lykki Li — No Rest For the Wicked
Craft Spells — Nausea
Dreamcatcher — Wanderlust
The Amity Affliction — Let the Ocean Take Me
Gates — Bloom and Breathe
The Antlers — Familiars
Lowercase Noises — This Is For Our Sins
For Today — Fight the Silence
Dan Croll — Sweet Disarray
Hundredth — Resist
Chiodos — Devil
Crosses ††† — Self-titled
Tycho — Awake
Agalloch — Serpent and the Sphere
Childish Gambino — Kauai
Nothing — Guilty of Everything
Abandon All Ships — Mallochi
Issues — Self-titled
Darkest Hour — Self-titled
Dir En Grey — Arche
Every Time I Die — Parts Unknown
Against Me !— Transgender Dysphoria Blues
Have a Nice Life — The Unnatural World
Boris — Noise
Animals As Leaders — The Joy of Motion
Weezer — Everything Will Be Alright in the End
The Contortionist — Language
Trophy Scars — Holy Vacants
Architects — Lost Forever // Lost Together
Cloudkicker — Little Histories
Coldplay — Ghost Stories
Rise Against — The Black Market
Whitechapel — Our Endless War
Cynic — Kindly Bent to Free Us
In Flames — Siren Charms
Beartooth — Disgusting
Of Mice and Men — Restoring Force
Crown the Empire — The Resistance: Rise of the Runaways
The Acacia Strain — Coma Witch
Miss May I — Rise of the Lion
Eluveitie — Origins
Thee Silver Mt. Zion — He Has Left Us Alone…

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