The Top Five Best Albums of 2014

It sounded like a lame joke I might make to myself or on Twitter: Rolling Stone has thought it over, and they’ve decided that the best, most interesting, and/or most inspiring albums of 2014 are: the one that U2 gave away for free, and the one that Bruce Springsteen pulled together from a decade of outtakes. I like U2 and I’ve got love for latter-day Springsteen. But the question remains:

Don’t you think we can do better?

Not every music publication’s best-music list is as lame as Rolling Stone‘s, of course, but there is a certain familiarity and timidity in a whole lot of them. The kind of over-the-top poptimism that gives Taylor Swift a lot of bonus points for making an album that isn’t unlistenable and that a lot of people bought. Or the kind of inclusiveness that insists you need to count down 50 top albums of the year, which is to say mention a lot without really calling anything way better than anything else. I understand that a crap-ton of albums are released every year. But is a list of 50 a best-of, or is it an abridged chronology?

So here’s the music nerds to tell you what’s what. Rob, Marisa, Sara, Craig and I submitted fairly disparate Best Albums lists and rallied around a few top vote-getters to create our rock-solid top five. We’re pretty sure it’s the best one on the internet. So there’s nothing left to do but enjoy it. And then argue with us like we’re Rolling Stone.

The Top Five Best Albums of 2014

(or 2-5, anyway)

5. Lost in the Dream by The War on Drugs

Though I’ve been a New Yorker for six years now and haven’t driven in almost as long, I’m still easily won over by an album if I can imagine blasting it while shooting down the freeway. And this year The War on Drugs’ Lost in the Dream was that freeway album for me. The good news is that it works just as well on a lazy afternoon with the curtains drawn as it does on the open road. Take one pinch of ’80s-era Springsteen with a healthy dash of Hornsby-style earnestness and simmer it with synthpop and some weed, and you’ll have some idea of what you’re in for with this record. It took bandleader Adam Granduciel one grueling year to complete the recording, an endless cycle that involved many revisions and scrapped material, and the result is both expansive and deeply intimate. The songs take their time, with many of them stretching beyond the six-minute mark, but that doesn’t mean the album as a whole doesn’t have a sense of immediacy. One need listen no further than lead single “Red Eyes” to appreciate its intricate, lustrous effects but you definitely should.

The album itself has such a glittering rockabilly surface that it’s easy to miss on a first pass the immense pain that it’s exploring. Having seen a band member depart and a long-term relationship disintegrate in quick succession, Granduciel unspools a bit more of his heartstrings with each song. There’s a great tension at play here between wanting to obliterate oneself and needing to lay everything bare. Pitchfork put it pretty much perfectly when it said this was “dad rock for people who are too fucked up to have kids.” But as with Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, the point when an artist is most broken is sometimes when this art becomes most inspired, and this broken album builds to a catharsis that feels all the more ecstatic for being so hard-won. We may not know what comes when we wake up to the world around us but if there’s music this good to be our guide, we’ll all be able to make it through. Sara

4. Complete Surrender by Slow Club

When a certain mega-superstar that shall remain nameless decides she wants to go in a more “pop” direction, she called up the usual songwriters/producers and threw together an album with a sound/mood and lyrical content that could’ve been released by any other female pop star in Top 40 today. When Slow Club decided that it wanted to put out something a little poppier, they came up with Complete Surrender.

The album is definitely a departure. It’s not as heavy on the lo-fi indie rock with boy/girl vocals. It’s a bigger sound overall, and one that veers towards more danceable songs like the title track. But it’s still totally, entirely, and 100 percent a Slow Club record. It preserves what’s great about the band: the interplay between Charles Watson and Rebecca Taylor, whether they’re singing in unison to sound bigger than a two-piece, or the way Rebecca’s voice can grow to envelop one bold, confident song while Charles’ shrinks on the next to reveal a more vulnerable-sounding side of the band.

While all of these elements make for an unusually layered pop record, the album really shines when Rebecca is turned loose. She offers a one-two punch of torchy songs with staggeringly great vocal performances on “Not Mine to Love” and “The Queen’s Nose” — superstar vocalizing from a band with great taste in pop. Marisa

3. The Voyager by Jenny Lewis

The cult adulation Jenny Lewis received as lead singer of late, lamented indie rock band Rilo Kiley made her emergence as a solo artist probably something like inevitable. But as good as her solo output has been, and as much as it pleased the more possessive dude music writers to have her collaborator Blake Sennett out of the picture (literally, out of the frame when said dudes stare at pictures of Jenny), her solo albums haven’t quite matched her work with Rilo. The Voyager is only the second album actually credited to her alone; she buddied up with the Watson Twins for her first album and coupled up with longtime boyfriend Jonathan Rice for her most recent one, credited to Jenny and Johnny. Acid Tongue, the record in between, has great songs but a hodgepodge of collaborators and styles.

Of course, J-Lew has done a lot of her best work with collaborators like Sennett — which is why The Voyager is so striking in its greatness. Lewis is front and center on this album, and while it’s as confident-sounding as anything she’s recorded (reminiscent, in that sense, of Rilo’s underrated Under the Blacklight), it doesn’t lean into the idolatry of the eternal crush her fans have on her. If anything, The Voyager gleefully exposes the insecurities of a smart, self-aware thirtysomething woman. Songs like “Head Underwater” and “Just One of the Guys” elucidate these feelings without miring in self-pity; it’s no coincidence that in the video for “Guys,” as in concert, she cases her line about being “just another lady without a baby” with a rueful laugh. Marriage is on her mind here, too, but with a lovely, wistful ambiguity, as on the rollicking, sweet, but not quite happy-ended “Love U Forever.” Rabbit Fur Coat was folky and country-ish, while I’m Having Fun Now sounded like ’90s alternative; here the blend of pop, ’80s guitar rock, story songs just sounds like Jenny, the way that Rilo Kiley’s disparate influences turned into their own distinct sound. The Voyager is her best solo record ever; she gives grown-up against a good name. Jesse

2. Teeth Dreams by The Hold Steady

It’s no secret that the SportsAlcohol crew are big fans of The Hold Steady. One thing we are not fans of is when music is reviewed based on narrative instead of merit. That being said, THS’s last album Heaven is Whenever had too much narrative to ignore. Fairly or unfairly, it was critically defined by the absence of then-recently-departed keyboardist/professional mustache-haver Franz Nikolai. The story went much deeper, as the band also dealt with internal strife, solo records, health crises and sobriety. Heaven Is Whenever gave them their highest chart debut and worst record reviews. What followed was a longer-than-usual break between albums and a question of what The Hold Steady’s next step was going to be. Thank god it was Teeth Dreams.

Teeth Dreams is the comeback album all Hold Steady fans were hoping for. Instead of being defined by the loss of band members and boozy raucousness, it’s a mission statement for how a band obsessed with youthful indiscretions  can grow up. Deciding to do away with keyboards and go to a true two guitar attack, their sound is the leanest it’s been since their first record. The well observed stories are still there, as is their Led Zeppelin meets Husker Du backing tracks. What’s changed is a creeping anxiety, referencing David Foster Wallace’s concept of “American Sadness” in one song. This might sound negative, but there’s a self awareness The Hold Steady didn’t have before. The subjects of their songs seem to be catching up to them in age. Teeth Dreams is a blueprint for how The Hold Steady can evolve without abandoning what’s great about them and a promise of future longevity.      — Rob


Our #1 pick gets its own post tomorrow. It’s gonna be a good one.