Any year-end top ten music list is a balance between overall objective quality and personal tastes. The sheer amount of music that comes out any given year makes compiling a list like this a crapshoot at the beginning, but eventually the cream rises to the top and the best albums hit both objectively and subjectively. With an operation of Deadshirt’s size, personal taste is a huge factor, so the resulting list may deviate in some spots from a list compiled by a larger publication, but what is great about this list is that it highlights and celebrates some albums and artists that may have gone overlooked or underrated by the bigger guys. The breadth of styles on this list is impressive. Everything from a Top 40 hit-maker, to a local scene troubadour is covered here, and I am pretty damn proud of the job our writers did putting it together. So instead of me saying something about the state of music in 2014, just take a look at our Top 10 list below and decide for yourself how this year in music went—for the record: I think it went very well.
– Julian Ames, Music Editor
1. St. Vincent – St. Vincent
There’s not much to be said about this “party record you could play at a funeral” that hasn’t already been said. Annie Clark’s brilliance shines through again with this self-titled LP from St. Vincent, with her soft angelic vocals swirled over some seriously distorted rock. If possible, Clark has gotten even more experimental here than she did with previous releases, like Actor or Strange Mercy. As many people who watched her live performance on Saturday Night Live will tell you, she’s definitely weird. While this type of art-pop doesn’t exactly translate into pop music success, St. Vincent had a hit on her hands with the second single release “Digital Witness,” gaining over six million listens on Spotify, a 4.5 star rating on iTunes, and over twenty-nine thousand downloads in the first week of sales alone. “Digital Witness” is the clear standout, but this record is not without its wealth of stand-alone singles. “Birth in Reverse” is fun, weird, and contains that same St. Vincent–style guitar drone that we all recognize, but manages to keep it fresh. “Severed Crossed Fingers,” the last track on the record, could be used as a funeral dirge in a 1980s karate movie, and yet it remains a completely serious and beautiful song of hope. This record has the perfect balance of weighty storytelling and witty effervescent satire.
– Steph Salo
2. Transgender Dysphoria Blues – Against Me!
In an interview, Against Me! frontwoman Laura Jane Grace said that when she was recording Transgender Dysphoria Blues, she was finally having fun again. It shows. Long known for a full-throated, raw-nerve style that was largely missing from the previous two albums, Against Me!’s latest was both a return to form and a continued evolution, blending Grace’s famous gravelly yawp with the more introspective elements of recent efforts. The band’s first full-length entry since Grace came out as trans, Blues serves as a crash course in just what that means, all while demonstrating impressive range. The song whose aggressive style is most in line with vintage Against Me!, “Drinking With The Jocks,” focuses on the gender performance minefield that forms the album’s thematic through-line, while “Unconditional Love” displays Grace’s talent for both catchy choruses and savage introspection. “Osama bin Laden as the Crucified Christ” boasts a name that sounds cribbed from 2002’s Reinventing Axl Rose, but, instead of left-anarchist politics, the track compares violence against trans individuals to the exile and execution of mass murderers. Blues chronicles the trials of a type of nonconformity one does not choose and how, by embracing it, Grace and others like her can weaponize their very existence in the struggle against established power structures.
– Cameron DeOrdio
3. 1989 – Taylor Swift
It’s not a stretch to imagine Taylor Swift making the best pop album of 2014. Anyone who’s been paying attention to music’s biggest star from Day One knows her heart never truly belonged to Nashville. And yet, on 1989, nobody quite expected this: chilly hooks co-written with Top 40 wizards Max Martin and Shellback, Jack Antonoff of Steel Train/fun./Bleachers, and OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder; deeply personal, maniacally relatable lyrics that suggested sexual maturity and burgeoning self-awareness; and an overall acute sense of The Way We Live Now: tired and wired, with a Twitter feed full of content that seems almost too earnest while revealing less than you’d think.
Pundits can (and will) spend whole paragraphs on what 1989 truly means: Swift’s transition away from country to pop, how well she can sing these tunes live, the merits of her taking her catalog away from Spotify, and so on. Those will all matter something when the ultimate narrative of this album is published in the history books, but for now, 1989 is a pretty solid pop album. You’ve doubtlessly already heard chart-topping singles “Shake It Off” and “Blank Space” (the latter a far stronger example of what the album offers), but the simmering grooves of “Out of the Woods” and “Style” (both of which are probably about that guy in that boy band), the intoxicating “This Love” and “Wildest Dreams,” and the soaring “I Wish You Would” make this not just a hell of a pop album, but a hell of an album in general.
– Mike Duquette
4. Black Moon Spell – King Tuff
Kyle Thomas’ third album as King Tuff is a glammed-out love letter to, for, and by rock and roll weirdos. Black Moon Spell sees King Tuff refining his craft while still sticking to the blueprint laid out in his previous self-titled album. A great deal of that refinement can be heard in the guitar work. Thomas has always been a fine guitarist, but on Black Moon Spell he allows himself to really shine, moving with ease between being a master shredder and a killer riff-maker, channeling great artists from the obvious T. Rex, to others like Thin Lizzy, The Only Ones and even a little Black Sabbath. The whole album is great fun, but album highlights include the stadium stomper “Madness,” the sunny “Eyes of the Muse,” the fast-paced and thrilling “Headbanger,” and the closer “Eddie’s Song,” which will keep you humming the chorus long after the record is over.
– Julian Ames
5. Singles – Future Islands
There were albums this year that were more popular, more groundbreaking, and more exciting, but I don’t think anyone made an album as relentlessly re-listenable as Singles. I first reviewed it back in March, and it’s the only non-Beyonce collection of songs from the first quarter I still play. Samuel Herring’s deft and mutable vocals are just so powerful and engrossing, backed by a synth pop band completely uninterested in cheap eighties nostalgia. Future Islands makes honest, yearning pop music that fits nearly any mood, every song ready to score your next break-up, or promotion, or whiskey soaked karaoke night. “Seasons (Waiting On You)” is the obvious favorite, but deeper cuts like “A Dream Of You And Me” hit just as hard. This album is all A Sides and they’ll all melt your heart.
– Dominic Griffin
6. Rips – Ex Hex
Following up her work in the supergroup Wild Flag, Mary Timony, united with Fire Tapes bassist Betsy Wright, and The Aquarium drummer Laura Harris, came roaring back this year with her new band, Ex Hex. Combining scorching indie rock with fifties girl group harmonies, Rips is an all-killer, no filler barn burner of a record. The album reminds me of Bob Mould’s post-solo work (and post-post-Hüsker Dü) band Sugar. Much like their first album Copper Blue, Rips is just a no bullshit rock record that barely slows down to mid-tempo a few times but still trucks along with all the momentum of a wrecking ball. Timony cedes the microphone over to Wright a few times on the album, including the great “Radio On.” Other standout tracks include “Waterfall” and “Hot And Cold,” but, really, the whole album is excellent. Also, they’re on tour right now, and if you get a chance, catch them when they come through your town. As great as the record is, their live show is even more electric.
– Jason Urbanciz
7. If You Don’t Like It, You Can Leave – Julian Velard
New York City singer-songwriter Julian Velard has mastered the art of off-kilter piano-pop (think Billy Joel or Randy Newman with a penchant for Sondheim and an endearingly goofy ego) ever since the nutcases at EMI signed him in 2009, only to never release a single note he recorded. This year saw the release of his latest album, If You Don’t Like It, You Can Leave, a jazzy, engaging ten-track ode to life, love, and loss in the greatest city in the world.
But you don’t have to be a native New Yorker to enjoy the ride Velard takes listeners on. His work can be endlessly romantic, from the new romance of “Brooklyn Kind of Love” to the sweetly commitment-resistant “No One’s Getting Married Tonight.” And he knows what it’s like to take lumps, whether yearning for days gone by (“That Old Manhattan,” which interpolates Gershwin’s “Rhapsody In Blue”) or acceptance from a father figure (the aching “Jimmy Young”). By the time the deep-cut Billy Joel cover “Where’s the Orchestra?” has finished, it might not be a stretch to claim there’s a new piano man in town.
– Mike Duquette
8. Rented World – The Menzingers
The rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle has always been inherently self-destructive, but rarely do those living it consider the cost that self-destruction can take on the people who love you. The Menzingers’ Rented World is about the realization that the philosophy of “fuck you, I’ll do what I want” that’s so essential to punk rock is eventually going to push people away. It’s not an apology for punk, or for self-reliance, or for going on the road, or for being immature in general—it’s not a promise to grow up. But in song after song, from the pitch-perfect earworm “I Don’t Wanna Be an Asshole Anymore,” to the gut-wrenching “Nothing Feels Good Anymore,” songwriters Greg Barnett and Tom May are admitting that yeah, they’ve been selfish and short-sighted, and there are a few individuals in their lives who they should have treated better.
One of the core struggles of our generation is figuring out just how much we want to grow up, how much we really want to be like our parents’ generation. The Menzingers have made up their minds, and it’s an inspiring choice: they’ll be punk rock forever, but they can do it without abandoning all responsibility for the people they love.
– Dylan Roth
9. Lazaretto – Jack White
Rock ‘n’ Roll’s mad scientist Jack White saw his Lazaretto become the best selling vinyl record in twenty years. A good portion of that was, of course, due to the numerous gimmicks and easter eggs featured on the record itself, but beneath all the bells and whistles of the packaging, there lies a good album. At face value, Lazaretto is the logical next step from what White established on his first solo record, Blunderbuss; at first it merely met my expectations by replicating the garage-turned-americana sound of the first one. But on subsequent listens, the record really grew on me, and I started noticing the details that made it way better than just a sequel to Blunderbuss. With each listen I had a new favorite song, from the swagger-filled one-two punch opener of “Three Women” and the title track, “Lazaretto,” which has White delivering his lines with an MC-like quality, “High Ball Stepper,” the opening riff I have as my ringtone, “Just One Drink,” “Alone In My Home,” and “Black Bat Licorice” each caught my ear at one time or another. It might not win you over right away, but Lazaretto has great staying power and is still good, even after the umpteenth listen.
– Julian Ames
10. Brill Bruisers – The New Pornographers
I may have over-extolled this record’s virtues in my full-length review a few months ago, but the long and short of it is this: Brill Bruisers is an excellent, adventurous album from a band that had slipped into a comfortable rut. The album recaptures the energy and collaborative spirit of early New Pornographers albums, when frenetic energy, soaring hooks, and musical chair lead singers were the name of the game. The magic of the New Pornographers is that they are the rare supergroup that is monumentally greater than the sum of its parts. A.C. Newman’s songwriting talent has never been more apparent, and he, Neko Case, and Kathryn Calder mesh their voices together perfectly for some intensely satisfying harmonies. The electro-tinged arrangements give the LP a glittering, lush quality. Even Dan Bejar seems to have really shown up this time, contributing some of the best tracks he’s written for the band since The Electric Version. With drummer Kurt Dahle departing shortly after the record’s launch, the band’s future may be in question; if Brill Bruisers is to be their final outing, it’s a hell of a swan song.
– Sam Paxton
Check out all of our Best of 2014 lists!