1. The Hold Steady – Teeth Dreams
In a year that contained some high highs, great successes were pulverized with bad news and crushing defeat at what seemed like every turn. The bad seemed relentless and the good was spotty at best. Not much felt worthy of celebration. Looking back at my favorite albums of this year, there was only one record that could have been in this spot.
Teeth Dreams is an imperfect record for an imperfect year. It’s an album that struggles with balance, negotiating the band’s past and its future, and that’s emblematic of my experience. I’ve found it to act as a sonic buoy in the wake of some pretty rough waters.
If you’ve stuck with The Hold Steady this late in their career, they’ve likely soundtracked a major part of your life. For those who got lost along the way, I think through their eyes, The Hold Steady has let them down. I feel that’s kind of unfortunate.
That’s because they’re a band that so many can pinpoint to a specific time and feeling in their life and be ok with leaving them there. I suppose that can be applied to many bands that go in and out of your life. However, those are the same people that don’t realize that some of those groups don’t really fade out. Instead, they change course, get a little more complicated and grow in unexpected ways.
I find myself coming back to “Spinners” on an almost daily basis. It’s fascinating – one of The Hold Steady’s most texturally aware songs – fraternal twin guitar parts, a shitkicking solo by Steve Selvidge and some killer, classic Craig Finn lines like these – “Heartbreak hurts, but you can dance it off.” It’s a song about the infinite possibility of a night out on the town – “Once you’re out there, everything is possible,” which is something universal, and if you think about it – sort of euphoric.
“The Only Thing” is another favorite. It sounds decidedly un-Hold Steady, with wirey, I.R.S.-era R.E.M. guitars and Craig Finn singing with the melody instead of in spite of it. It’s cinematic. Other songs like the David Foster Wallace-paraphrasing “On With The Business” and “Big Cig” bring back toothy guitars that were kind of in the backseat on 2010’s Heaven is Whenever.
The one-two punch to close the album ranks among the band’s finest – and that’s saying a lot, considering their track record. “Almost Everything” is a meditative ballad – think the flip side of the Irish-wake “Citrus” – and finally, “Oaks,” a nine-minute epic that the band simply couldn’t have made before this. Hazy, layered and beautiful, it’s the best thing to close one of their albums since “How A Resurrection Really Feels”.
There are plenty of albums this year that may have felt more cohesive, uniform, and in some cases, relevant. But number one records on these type of lists should be there for you under any circumstance, and that Teeth Dreams has.
“Words won’t save your life,” this band once said. It’s true, they won’t, but that sure as hell won’t keep them from trying.
2. Run The Jewels – Run The Jewels 2
No record quite captured 2014 as perfectly as Run The Jewels 2. It’s one that’s full of fury and resentment but manages an unstoppable swagger. It’s also an odd moniker for an album that superseded its original. If their first album was The Terminator, this is their Judgment Day.
It goes without saying that this was an especially hard year on this world. Endless political and social upheaval, unimaginable tragedy, and little for humankind to be truly proud of. This world is a messed up place. El-P and Killer Mike address it across eleven propane-fueled tracks and manage to factor in a veritable amount of dick talk in the process.
While the first RTJ album did feel like one, there’s something in comparison with RTJ2 that makes this release feel a little fuller. It’s a statement. It’s beefier, the beats hit harder, and the rhymes are that much more belligerent. There’s so much to unpack here – just hit play and go for the ride.
On Run The Jewels 2, The world is their T-1000. We’re John Connor. They’re the T-800’s lowering down in the molten metal, hands in the fist and gun position.
3. The War on Drugs – Lost in The Dream
Five years ago, I saw The War on Drugs open for The Hold Steady five times in one week. Back then, they were a ramshackle three piece with one record out that contained just a little more than hazy sketches of songs and a vague indication that there just might be more than meets the ear. I liked them enough to buy a vinyl copy of their first record and have them sign it. They were largely undeveloped live but I liked their energy.
2011’s Slave Ambient showed the group in transition, negotiating their fuzzier past with something a little more fluid and cohesive. I guess it’s not totally surprise, but any way you put it, “Lost In A Dream” is a triumph.
It’s so easy to rest on the album’s obvious 80’s overtones, but I think that’s what makes it so refreshing, and ultimately, successful. It’s the sound of the many of our youth – when what played on the radios of our parents cars were just bits and pieces of words we could put together surrounded by warm, encompassing beds of sound. Songs like “Red Eyes” and “An Ocean In Between the Waves” – especially when that guitar lead kicks in about two-and-a-half minutes in. I’m in a car seat, I’m going to preschool, I can hear those two endless Don Henley hits with post-peak Rod Stewart in-between.
But it’s not exactly nostalgic, either. This sound is big, sweeping, infinite. It’s music saying something. I don’t know exactly what it’s saying, but I like the vessel it’s in.
4. Against Me! – Transgender Dysphoria Blues
I’m going to resist writing about what everyone else has said about this record, what led to its release, and what it means now. That’s a conversation we’ll be having for a long time and that’s a very good thing.
Transgender Dysphoria Blues is an album about discovery, negotiating your past, present and future and how absolutely fucking hard and completely scary it is to do that. And while the particulars aren’t the same, I can sympathize with that core feeling.
Laura Jane Grace just happened to write a record about it – one that’s furious, frenetic, and sometimes frightening. Play it through. There’s so much raw emotion – vocals that soar, guitars that with the life wrung out of them and bass that reaches the bottom of the gutter. With that combination – it’s hard to not be hooked. Never has an album so specific in theme actually been just as universal.
5. Weezer – Everything Will Be Alright In The End
My relationship with Weezer has changed many times over the years, basically from superfan of not-quite-Hold Steady proportions to prognosticator that the “next great Weezer album is coming, I swear,” to hopeless former fan watching them play the parking lot of the local mall.
That’s why Everything Will Be Alright In The End is such a surprise. For whatever reason, Weezer flipped back on the switch. I don’t know what I expected from a Weezer album in 2014 (or that I expected anything from them at all, really) but what I find is that this album is a deeply satisfying listen. It’s a layered collection pop songs with big guitar solos and fun hooks to sing along to.
That next great album probably will never come, and that’s okay. This is all I need from them these days, and I’m glad they’re back in the business of doing it.
6. Ryan Adams – Ryan Adams/1984
It’s impossible to mention Ryan Adams’s recorded output this year without mentioning both his self-titled album and the 10-song EP 1984, which shows the downright duplicity of his catalog.
Ryan Adams is a collection of moody, 80’s guitar rock that would fit nicely alongside with other branded “college rock” radio favorites of the era. “Gimme Something Good” is a great song in ANY year, and I bet Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are pretty pissed they didn’t write it.
1984, on the other hand, is the more fun record of the two. It’s Adams in all of his Mats/Huskers/insert-favorite-hardcore-band-here glory, busting out one similar-sounding punk blast after another. That said, both are essential listening this year and should always merit back-to-back listening.
7. Sharon Van Etten – Are We There
Always a very talented songwriter from the start, Sharon Van Etten had never really made that record. She’d written a lot of beautiful songs, teamed with one of the Dessner brothers from The National to wear in her sound a bit more, but nothing really quite came together completely like the immense beauty and infinite sadness of Are We There.
It’s easily Van Etten’s best record. Choose any song: “Afraid of Nothing,” the simplicity of “Our Love,” and the propulsive album closer “Every Time The Sun Comes Up”. Put it on and let it wash over you. It’s that kind of record.
8. Fucked Up – Glass Boys
Fucked Up take a very different sonic approach to whatever project they’re working on, be it the scrappiness of their endless 7″ releases, the genre-bending Zodiac series, or even that goofy full-length David’s Town faux-compilation they put out exactly the same time they released a double album.
That said, every Fucked Up album is denser than the last, with all of these hidden layers that you usually don’t notice with a lot hardcore records. Glass Boys is no different. It maintains the scope of 2011’s David Comes to Life but contracts just enough to keep that laser focus they always have with each project. Half a year later, I’m not certain that I’ve got this album all figured out, but something tells me that was kind of the point.
9. The Lawrence Arms – Metropole
It was a long eight years between albums from The Lawrence Arms – for good reason. They needed the time to age out of being a scrappy punk band from Chicago pushing 30 to become a scrappy punk band from Chicago pushing 40. There’s a series of lines from “Seventeener (17th and 37th)” that sets the tone for the rest of the record: “And yesterday I woke up to find/The black in my beard had turned to white. And the pretty girls that used to smile at me/Just stared off straight ahead or looked down at their feet.”
What Metropole represents – but certainly isn’t limited to – is a new kind of dad rock. Music made by dudes who cut their teeth on third-wave punk rock. It’s music for people old enough to worship Asian Man Records entire catalog and recall those legendary late-90’s shows at the Fireside Bowl.
The band has lost none of their edge – it’s definitely still there, and they’re just as vital. It just feels like there’s something learned, and it’s made them even better.
10. Protomartyr – Under Color Of Official Right
It’s scary that Detroit-based Protomartyr are this good two records in. Under Color of Official Right is an collection of dangerous, spacy post punk fronted by Joe Casey, whose baritone probably can best describe as a deeply unconcerned Matt Berninger. Songs like “Maidenhead”, “Trust Me Billy” and “What The Wall Said” are spiky and sinister. This is a band that sounds like they’ve got a lot to say, and with this record, they’re in the middle of a sentence.