For those of you who’ve been around me, you’ll know this to be an annual tradition. This year, I upped the ante a little bit by keeping track of every album I listened to at least once this year on my handy Evernote app on my phone. This allowed me to remember a little better what I listened to throughout the year, making this list a little easier to swallow. That in mind, the list itself is a little longer, with a few more categories than in years past. I’m also only including commentary on the top ten, mostly because the list is so long, I don’t really have any desire to muse about each of these records. So without further ado, here is my list of the best albums of 2014.
- Colony House – When I Was Younger: This one was inevitable the moment I tattooed some of its lyrics on my left arm. I first caught wind of these guys a few years ago when they were known as Caleb, and was very excited to hear that this record was coming out this year when I saw them back in 2013. The vocalist and drummer are Caleb and Will Chapman, sons of famed CCM artist Steven Curtis Chapman, and the talent apple doesn’t fall far from that particular tree. These songs are different, though, than anything their dad ever put out; and while they are not shy about the faith element of their lives, this isn’t a preachy record, just an honest one. This brand of indie rock manages moments of wild introspection about a particularly difficult time in the boys’ life, but while it is honest, it isn’t shy. The music is well crafted and thoughtful, and, possibly most importantly, this is an album in the truest sense, as the track order feels deliberate, a lost art in this day and age. No matter what else came out this year, there came a point where I just knew this was the record I was going to remember most from this year.
- Copeland – Ixora: This one moved up the list rather quickly. A reunion record of sorts, coming 6 years after the Lakeland, FL foursome said their final goodbyes on the road. This album certainly feels like the album they weren’t able to make years ago because they weren’t ready to. Equal parts kin to its predecessor (2008’s You Are My Sunshine) and steps in new directions for the band, it also feels like an album that wants, at least in small doses, to recognize where they’ve come after all these years. Yes, it’s sort of a moody album, but there’s also a wonder in the melancholy, as Aaron Marsh’s lyrics and vocals don’t seem to be crushed by the mood, but alive because of it. This is an album that seems to get better as it ages, so I’m very much looking forward to spinning the vinyl when it finally comes in the mail.
- Needtobreathe – Rivers in the Wasteland: I’ll say I’ve always been more of a fringe appreciator of NtB in the past. I’ve listened to earlier records by the South Carolina natives, but, save for 2011’s The Reckoning, never really found much I was interested in. This album really changed my views, so much so that I think I’ll need to go back and give the rest of their discography more time. The latest record feels like better versions of everything I’ve heard from them so far: the folk is folkier, the Southern rock has an edge, as if all the powers have finally combined to create greatness. I think the truthfulness of the lyrics, though, is what sets this apart. These are songs of longing, made clear not only by what is sung about but how, and vocalist Bear Rinehart delivers one of the best performances from top to bottom, showing versatility unseen in most bands.
- Manchester Orchestra – Cope: Like with NtB, MO and I were only fringe friends before now. But I knew as soon as I heard the first few chords (and my goodness the drum sounds) of “Top Notch,” the first track off of what I now consider to be the best MO album yet, that this was going to be an album I was going to keep coming back to. This is an aggressive record from start to finish, and Andy Hull’s signature snarl is on full display (this is actually a pretty well-mixed record for all the noise it makes) through all the guitars and drums (speaking of top notch, did I mention how good the drums sound?). To make this album all the more incredible, however, was the late year release of Hope, a companion record to this effort, featuring all of the songs from Cope in more stripped-down, quieter versions. That the songs hold up to the scrutiny of that type of rethinking makes Cope all the more impressive. Either way, these are spectacular songs that should be heard.
- Anberlin – lowborn: What a bittersweet album this is. On the one hand, it’s likely the least accomplished record that Anberlin has put out since New Surrender came out in 2008, as the one-two punch of Dark Is the Way, Light is a Place and Vital (probably my favorite overall Anberlin record) really hit home. It’s unfair to compare what they’ve done with this, their final record, and what came before it, only because this album was recorded in pieces by a band that already knew they were on their way out. Which isn’t to say they phoned it in, just that as an album it isn’t nearly as cohesive a work as maybe any of the rest of their records before this, but is still chock full of good songs, including “Hearing Voices,” which might be one of my favorite Anberlin songs ever. I’m terribly sad to see them go, but I’m fortunate to have been along for the ride all these years.
- Crowder – Neon Steeple: David Crowder is nothing if not eclectic. All these years he’s been creeping closer and closer to an album like this, and finally, in the wake of the dissolution of the David Crowder*Band, we can finally see what he was after for the last few years. On one hand, Neon Steeple makes it abundantly clear who was driving the folky, bluegrass side of DC*B all these years (especially in light of listening to The Digital Age, the band that most of the rest of Crowder’s former band created), but it also sheds light on the quirky, experimental nature of Crowder himself. Of all the so-called worship artists, he’s always been the one I’ve admired most for his attempts at creating interesting, artistic music, and in that regard, this album falls right in line. While the record is definitely, as Crowder himself put it, “folktronica,” I think he did a fantastic job of not making it too much like Christian dance music. And while these aren’t necessarily Sunday morning singable songs, they are, more than anything else, Crowder’s attempts to continue to write great songs that the church can meditate on and enjoy.
- Mike Mains & The Branches – Calm Down, Everything is Fine: This is one of the earliest albums I listened to this year, and I didn’t even own the record until much later into 2014. I listened to it several times online, and just always came amazed by the pure passion of this album. Having seen these guys live, I can tell you that the emotion and excitement for the songs carries over into that arena, and they’ve done an excellent job of channeling that into the record. It’s hardly groundbreaking musically, but Mains is a talented songwriter who is interested in making his music as interesting as he can. He’s succeeded.
- Pianos Become the Teeth – Keep You: I’d only just heard of this band before this year, having seen them mentioned around different online message boards and the like. And I recalled listening to a few snippets of songs before, and not really being all that interested. It felt like they were trying to bring back some edgier elements of the screamo movement, and I just wasn’t really buying in. Then I heard the first song off this record prior to its release, and I realized this was a totally different band. It turns out the vocalist, Kyle Durfey, can really sing, in a style that just bleeds emotion and grit, and, more importantly for this record, utter sadness. Keep You is a really bleak record, and Durfey’s vocal style fits that perfectly, often distant and pushed a little back into the mix, he’s expressing residual agony over the loss of his father, and the pain is still real, and it seeps through every pore of this record. It’s not for the faint of heart, but this album deserves to be heard by as many people who can survive it.
- Yellowcard – Lift A Sail: Another record focused on tragedy, this time the sad tale of singer Ryan Key’s wife and the loss of her ability to continue to ski professionally after a terrible accident. While not nearly as bleak as Keep You, it’s no less honest about the struggle Key and his wife have gone through. Musically, this album is miles apart (see what I did there?) from any other YC album before it. Gone are the steady beats of their original drummer, the man who clearly drove the pop-punk side of the band’s sound. Instead, Key has said this record finds more of its roots in the late 90’s rock scene, and while I’m not entirely sure he and the band hit that goal, this is definitely more of a straight alternative rock album than the pop-punk YC is famous for. In many ways, that changed has been a breath of fresh air for the band, as the sound that was starting to become a little stale has progressed in very interesting, sometimes challenging ways. It doesn’t sound at all like the YC that came before it–even Key’s vocals sound thicker and more mature–and I, for one, am not at all upset about that.
- Tigers Jaw – Charmer: I listened to this record initially because the band did a split with Balance & Composure, a band that put out one of my surprise favorite records from 2013. So I decided to give this album a try, and I’m very glad I did. This is an album that harkens back to the lo-fi days of home recorded emo, as the tandem songwriting/vocals of Brianna Collins and Ben Walsh create a soothing trip from start to finish. This is an album that has a mood to it, one that recalls the mundane elements of small town life (the band hails from Scranton, PA), while still wanting to reflect honestly on the world as it is. That being said, this isn’t a very technically complicated record, with Collins and Walsh handling most of the instrumentation, and the vocal delivery suggests an almost lack of caring, except they’re also dripping with a cool sadness. And really that’s it. This is just a cool record.
- Matrimony – Montibello Memories
- King’s Kaleidoscope – Becoming Who We Are
- Braid – No Coast
- You Blew It! – Keep Doing What You’re Doing
- Tokyo Police Club – Forcefield
- Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness – Andrew McMahon in The Wilderness
- The Black Keys – Turn Blue
- Spoon – They Want My Soul
- Temples – Sun Structures
- Citizens & Saints – Join the Triumph
- From Indian Lakes – Absent Sounds
- Number One Gun – This Is Who We Are
- Clay Your Hands Say Yeah – Only Run
- The War on Drugs – Lost in the Dream
- John Mark McMillan – Borderland
- Coldplay – Ghost Stories
- Prawn – Kingfisher
- U2 – Songs of Innocence
- Circa Survive – Descensus
- Young the Giant – Mind Over Matter
- Conditions – Missing Hours
- Switchfoot – Fading West/The Edge of the Earth EP
- Jack White – Lazaretto
- Artifex Pereo – Time in Place
- Emarosa – Versus
- I Can Make A Mess – Growing In
- Young Statues – The Flatlands Are Your Friend
- Jukebox the Ghost – Jukebox the Ghost
- Ryan Adams – Ryan Adams
- We Were Promised Jetpacks – Unraveling
Moments Like Movie Scenes – Honesty (EP)
Sam Means – Blue Jeans (EP)
House of Heroes – Smoke (EP)
Young Rising Suns – Young Rising Suns (EP)
Park – Jacob the Rabbit (EP)
The World is A Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die – Between Bodies (EP)
Best of the rest:
Foster the People – Supermodel
Daniel Ellsworth and the Great Lakes – Kid Tiger
Fairweather – Fairweather
Animals As Leaders – The Joy of a Motion
Margot & the Nuclear So and So’s – Slingshot to Heaven
Bear Hands – Distraction
My Epic – Beholden
Bleachers – Strange Desire
Blondfire – Young Heart
J Mascis – Tied to a Star
Interpol – El Pintor
Sir Sly – You Haunt Me
Stars – No One Is Lost
Iceage – Plowing Into the Field of Love
Foo Fighters – Sonic Highways
Sovereign Grace Music – Prepare Him Room: Celebrating the Birth of Jesus in Song
Empire! Empire! (I Was a Lonely Estate) – You Will Eventually Be Forgotten
Chris Tomlin – Love Ran Red
Special Category (for special projects, revisited albums, etc):
The Classic Crime – What Was Done, Volume 1
David Bazan + Passenger String Quartet – Volume 1
Manchester Orchestra – Hope
The Gaslight Anthem – Get Hurt
Taking Back Sunday – Happiness Is…
Tenth Avenue North – Cathedrals
Not enough time (either came out too late or I didn’t listen to the record enough):
TV on the Radio – Seeds
Perfume Genius – Too Bright
Sullivan – Heavy is the Head
Damien Rice – My Favourite Faded Fantasy
The New Pornographers – Brill Bruises
Parquet Courts – Sunbathing Animal
Lecrae – Anomoly
Real Estate – Atlas
Jenny Lewis – The Voyager