Whenever year-end listomania begins, I’m always fondly reminded of Anton Ego (Peter O’Toole)’s monologue at the end of Pixar’s “Ratatouille.”
“In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. . . . . But the bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.”
I, by no means, consider myself a critic. In that distanced spirit, I’ve found that I can derive far more pleasure from year-end lists by simply admitting their ultimate irrelevance in the argument of best against worst. With that firmly in mind, I present to you my ten favorite albums of the year – in no particular order whatsoever.
Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 2
As I’ve already said, 2014 was the year of the Jewels. To again quote Spencer Tweedy, this is the modern face of protest. This is fuck the minimum wage music. This is flood the streets music. This is justice music. This is The Clash, NWA, Woody Guthrie, but – more than anything – this is Run the Jewels as only El-P and Killer Mike could deliver.
Against Me! – Transgender Dysphoria Blues
Originally conceived as a concept album centered around a transgender prostitute, Transgender Dysphoria Blues now stands as a triumphant feat of sincerity and identity assertion. The journey of this album starts not at the beginning of Against Me! – the band, but at the start of Laura Jane Grace – the person. Accomplished in both its sociopolitical bravery and its concise, free-of-filler songwriting, this is the album the band has almost made ever since Reinventing Axl Rose.
Max Collins – Honey from the Icebox
Both a callback to the territory briefly explored under the Brotherhood of Lost Dogs moniker during Eve 6’s initial hiatus and a decidedly bold romp across new ground, Icebox retains the elements I’ve always enjoyed about Max’s work – his smart, professorial take on pop lyricism – while imbuing them with a new wardrobe of rattling acoustics and words-first production style. “909” became one of those songs I returned to three or four times a week since its release, achieving standout status by effortlessly conveying both the story of the song’s characters (a couple moving across the country to Los Angeles) and the struggles of an artist abandoning comfort in favor of a similar adventure – establishing a new identity without betraying the foundation of old.
EMA – The Future’s Void
Temporarily abandoning the cloak of poetry worn well on her 2011 album Past Life Martyred Saints, Erika M. Anderson took a decidedly direct approach on The Future’s Void. Speaking with Tiny Mix Tapes earlier this year, Anderson was quick to silence the album-as-millennial-indictment interpretation shared by many critics. “I feel like people, when they’re looking at “Neuromancer,” think that I’m trying to lecture millennials about their selfie habits or something, when really I’m including myself in all of it. I was thinking about all the pictures online I had taken of myself, and professional selfies is what they ended up being. The line, “Such a narcissistic baby, such a new millennial baby, is it true? Is it true?” is like well, do you believe these things they’re saying about you?”
Perfume Genius – Too Bright
Imbuing the confident fragility of his instant chamber pop mainstay Put Your Back N 2 It with a noticeable tinge of frustration and anger, Mike Hadreas subtly reinvented himself without losing his initial charm. To see this charm in action, watch his KEXP performance from September of this year below.
FKA twigs – LP1
Tastefully futuristic and beautifully unhinged from its peers, LP1 brings innovation back into the conversation. Often excelling most where former veterans of innovation have faltered, the album proves itself as both a startling debut and an announcement of The Shape of Pop to Come (hopefully).
Angels & Airwaves – The Dream Walker
Aside from the obvious – i.e. the inclusion of Ilan Rubin – one of the strengths of The Dream Walker is its production. Though occasionally questioned by longtime listeners of DeLonge’s operatic brand of space rock, the playful use of buried vocals – a production technique DeLonge attributed to co-producer/engineer Aaron Rubin in an interview with WRRV – allows for a more user-friendly listening experience. Many of the album’s strongest moments are brilliantly served by this subtle production choice, leaving the listener to more or less interpret DeLonge’s words as they see fit. This allows for lines like “Give me a rope/I’m combing the lake/I fired God” (from “Mercenaries”) to spring forth from places they likely don’t even exist.
Morrissey – World Peace Is None of Your Business
Ever the outspoken connoisseur of public embattlement, the lovably abrasive nature of Morrissey’s finest work – from The Smiths classic Meat is Murder to the Moz masterwork Vauxhall and I – is on full display throughout World Peace. The album bounces back and forth between irony, resentment, admiration, and general age-induced apathy – a welcomed formula in the metamodern age. Many were quick to announce that World Peace simply doesn’t offer anything necessary to the already dense Morrissey canon, but – to quote Morrissey himself – “The teenagers who love you? They will wake up, yawn, and kill you.”
St. Vincent – St. Vincent
This album didn’t completely grab me until Annie Clark’s appearance on The Colbert Report, wherein she sparred playfully with Colbert before performing a version of “Digital Witness” doused in intentional stiltedness. More celebratory than critical, the irony of that track’s composition (funky future pop) brings its theme (alone / together in the digital age) to the forefront without bashing you in the head with commentary. Shared isolation never sounded so sweet.
Lykke Li – I Never Learn
Though this was also the year of Li’s collaboration with U2 (on Songs of Innocence closer “The Troubles”), it was (more importantly) the year of her finest work to date – I Never Learn, the final installment in a loosely defined trilogy. After moving to Los Angeles from Sweden following a break-up, Li spent two and a half years writing Learn, resulting in 32 minutes of dark romanticism and sensual atmospheria.