Top 50 records of 2014 so far...
Here is Spins top 50 records of 2014 so far. Some great records here. J / Prehab
Actress - Ghettoville (Werk Discs/Ninja Tune)
If this really is Darren Cunningham's final album under his Actress alias — a possibility hinted at in the press release, which speaks cryptically of the "conclusion" of the project — the London producer is going out in spectacularly anticlimactic fashion. The fact that his third album, in 2012, was already called R.I.P. only makes Ghettoville's walking-dead shuffle and thousand-yard stare all the more explicit. Forget about peaks; this is more like an endless succession of troughs, each one deeper than the last. If the curtain really is coming down, the show ends not with a bang, but with a locked groove. PHILIP SHERBURNE
Afghan Whigs - Do to the Beast (Sub Pop)
Sixteen years after their last proper release, it seems more ludicrous than ever to lump the Afghan Whigs in with any grunge movement, unless it's possible to imagine Candlebox resurrecting themselves via a cover of R&B upstart Frank Ocean's "LoveCrimes" or envision Tad alighting as Usher's backing band whilst swinging through SXSW, to name just two surprising events that have helped define this band's reunion. Never mind youthful energies — the Afghan Whigs have always pursued the kinds of qualities that needn't necessarily diminish with age, like a visual flair courted both onstage (ruddy suits) and off (iconic album covers for Congregation and Gentlemen).
Do to the Beast finds the group still boasting a surplus of panache; witness visual artist Amanda Demme's wonderful cover photo of what appears to be a shirtless man giving himself a double-fisted cocaine facial. Likewise, lead vocalist/head louche Greg Dulli's dark obsessions and predatory narrators manage to sound as erotically entrancing as he pushes 50 as they did when he was courting 25, aging gracefully like a snifter of peaty scotch rather than a cup of flat beer. JASON GUBBELS
Against Me! - Transgender Dysphoria Blues (Total Treble)
Laura Jane Grace's voice may appear cleaner and longer on Freddie Mercury vibrato on her band's sixth record (and first since coming out as transgender in the pages of Rolling Stone), but "Drinking With the Jocks" and "Osama Bin Laden as the Crucified Christ" prove she's simply deploying her scream more selectively, possibly to fuck with us. There is a shift in sound here: The more-or-less jangling guitars that festoon, say, "FuckMyLife666" have an '80s-college-radio vibe, which mixes oddly with the rawer production that largely renounces Butch Vig's Wall of Sound on 2007's incredible New Wave and 2010's underappreciated White Crosses. To put it in terms of the Replacements, think the grim maturity of Tim crossed with the still-righteous fury of Stink: Grace's gender affirmation isn't the only reason her band started covering "Androgynous" live. DAN WEISS
Angel Olsen - Burn Your Fire For No Witness (Jagjaguwar)
With Burn Your Fire For No Witness, Angel Olsen has assembled a record she says felt wholly representative of her vision, a set of songs that take on the shape and skin of punk and country and folk music, sung through a slew of different microphones. Declarations of independence are often bracing, but rarely do they illuminate so ferociously the lonesome reality of being on your own. DAVID BEVAN
Beck - Morning Phase (Capitol)
The only lyrical theme appearing on Beck's Morning Phase with any sort of consistency involves the sun's angle and repose, SoCal imagery that nicely compliments the obvious homages made throughout to various Laurel Canyon artifacts. But there are also broader nods to '60s icons like George Harrison (album closer "Waking Light" finishes with Abbey Road guitar flourishes), the Byrds ("Blackbird Chain" contains hints of Roger McGuinn's circular "Bells of Rhymney" riff), and, perhaps most surprisingly, Simon & Garfunkel (those choirboy harmonies adorning "Turn Away" only highlight the lovely melody's debt to "El Cóndor Pasa").
What does all this studio perfectionism add up to? A sun-kissed stroll through gentle waves of melody, serenity for those seeking some winter light, and sleep aids for those who think West Coast rock went off the rails between the formation of CSN and the first rumblings of X. (Those sympathetic to the latter philosophy may not find much to snicker about when Beck notes, "I need to find someone to show me how to play it slow," quite possibly the only joke on an album claiming few grins.) But jokes aren't the point, and neither is BPM. No matter how enthusiastically some claim Beck as a zeitgeist-embracing pop chameleon of the Jean-Luc Godard variety, he's far more a craftsman of the Louis Malle school: sophisticated, assured, self-aware, and incessantly torn between competing genres. J.G.
Behemoth - The Satanist (Metal Blade)
The return of Polish metal lifers Behemoth is nothing short of miraculous when you consider the hand they've been dealt: The Satanist is the band's first new studio album since charismatic frontman Nergal was diagnosed with leukemia in August 2010. Thanks to a successful bone-marrow transplant, he's in full recovery, but his brush with death makes this album feels like a rebirth.
From classic heavy-metal riffage and horn sections to acoustic spoken-word passages and doomy, down-tempo detours, The Satanist flaunts the band's newfound interest in dynamics and presents nine very different — and very sinister — compositions. The common thread is, of course, Satan and the bliss of profanation, but there's nuance to be had as well: Nergal presents himself as more conqueror than cretin. The album eases in with the apocalyptic dirge of "Blow Your Trumpets Gabriel," whose biblical, bloodthirsty lyrics serve pay thinly veiled homage to Nergal himself: When he bellows, "Hail my return!" it's hard not to heed the command. This is a comeback from a band that refused to consider defeat, and their strongest offering yet. KIM KELLY
Cibo Matto - Hotel Valentine (Chimera)
Everyone has them: those unguarded moments when unfiltered joy or unbridled terror washes over you like a tidal wave. Kids experience such raw feeling naturally; encumbered by overloaded brains, adults have various ways of reattaining it, savory and otherwise. On the third album from Cibo Matto, Japanese émigrés Miho Hatori (vocals) and Yuka Honda (keyboards, sampler) perform a small miracle by transforming self-conscious, genre-spanning paste-ups into vivid scenes that unleash a similar rush of pure sensation, like an overwhelming dream veering abruptly from ecstasy to gloom and back again, over and over. JON YOUNG
Cloud Nothings - Here and Nowhere Else (Carpark)
On Here and Nowhere Else, which was produced by John Congleton (St. Vincent, Erykah Badu, R. Kelly (!?)), Cloud Nothings take the best bits from their previous tutelage under alt-god producer Steve Albini, apply them to lo-fi pop-punk structures and infuse all of it with tightly wound angst. If the first indicator of this fusion was the immediately hooky lead single "I'm Not Part of Me," then album opener "Now Hear In" is the case in point. An incisive mission statement right down to its title, the song marries fevered riffs with a bass-heavy chorus. It's upbeat punk, but Dylan Baldi's lyrics about his vexing past provide a dour counterpoint that sets the tone for the entire album. CLAIRE LOBENFELD
Conor Oberst - Upside Down Mountain (Nonesuch)
Written and recorded in the three years that have passed since he quietly married Mexican musician and engineer Corina Escamilla Figueroa, Upside Down Mountain finds Conor Oberst trading bombast for nuance, and white-knuckle verbosity for relatively calm, plain-spoken tones. It is not a major reinvention, but a work of immense beauty that both transcends pre-existing narratives and suggests that, even as an adult, Oberst can still connect. D.B.
Courtney Barnett - The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas (Mom + Pop)
Comprised of previously released EPs previously released as an album overseas before finally receiving a stateside street date from Mom + Pop records in 2014, A Sea of Split Peas isn't exactly hot off the presses, but since it's the kind of album that withstands endlessly repeated listens, it doesn't much matter. Serving as Australian Courtney Barnett's debut, Split Peas introduces the world to the (s)lackadaisical troubadour's unforgettable steez: droll and dreamy, with the perfectly worn feel of your favorite hoodie. Barnett plays guitar and sings, and the shrug with which she delivers her wry observations obscures how incisive they can be. "I'm having trouble breathing in," she frets, ostensibly about an asthma attack, on "Avant Gardner," a rolling, note-perfect rock song wherein a well-intentioned day in the yard becomes a metaphor for just trying to get by in the world. Such gems abound on Peas, sprouting like the vegetables Barnett so earnestly wishes she could grow. GARRETT KAMPS
Damon Albarn - Everyday Robots (Parlophone)
Damon Albarn's been quietly leading a revolution in pop spectacle since Day One. Hence my hopes/dreams/fears for his solo album: Would Lil Wayne appear on it? How about the cast of Star Wars? Would it feature the exhumed corpse of Joe Strummer? Alas, no. But then — no! Everyday Robots has none of these things! It is, in fact, the inverse of nearly all of Albarn's previous work: immediate, restrained, even downright painful in parts. Albarn's not exactly old, but he's aging — you feel that on Everyday Robots. Whereas records like Parklife and Demon Days were like ostentatious theme parks, brimming with ideas, Robots is a snow globe, a diorama, the contents of Albarn's head arranged with fastidious precision: one man's life at 46. G.K.
EMA - The Future's Void (Matador)
Despite Erika M. Anderson having some harsh words for millennials and sporting a cautious attitude toward the all-encompassing terror brought on by the Internet, The Future's Void isn't anti-technology (you don't scoop up Tumblr artist Molly Soda for your music video if you don't have some sincere stock in this stuff). Nor is it all that condescending (though "Neuromancer," which sounds like Kate Bush covering Nine Inch Nails' Hesitation Marks and takes aim at selfie-takers, is like your cool older sister lecturing you and suddenly seeming not that cool anymore). Mostly, this byzantine follow-up to 2011's splenetic Past Life Martyred Saints is just reasonably bleak, reminding us that we're all in this inescapable knot of information and surveillance together, like one big happy family being spied on, exploited, and data-mined. BRANDON SODERBERG
Eric Church - The Outsiders (EMI Nashville)
While Taylor Swift gave it up to "Tim McGraw," Eric Church fired up his daddy's lighter to the strains of "Springsteen" on his 2011 breakthrough, Chief. That excellent record rocked hard and smart in the name of "some long-haired hippie prophet preaching from the book of Johnny Cash," but he levels up on The Outsiders. The opening title track swaggers out of S. E. Hinton and onto side two of Master of Reality, as Church and his band prepare to storm heaven with "hell at our backs." "That's Damn Rock & Roll" comes on like AC/DC with a flashier bassist before stuttering into a Billy Joel rap about "when the Clash crashed the party and the party got loud / And the party turned into an angry crowd." The guitar solo on "Talladega" could fill the arena in the video for "Paradise City" all by itself. This ain't rock'n'roll — this is assault with a deadly weapon. MICHAEL ROBBINS
Fatima Al Qadiri - Asiatisch (Hyperdub)
Fatima Al Qadiri's found a home for this record at Hyperdub, a label with an impressive lineup of innovative female producers including Cooly G, Laurel Halo, Jessy Lanza, and Ikonika. Though Asiatisch is her most sensual and least thesis-y recording to date, all of Al Qadiri's work is conceptual, relying on a reimagined world with the narrative centralized in neglected, exotified, or misunderstood places. It's immersive and transgressive, if you care about this stuff. ANUPA MISTRY
Freddie Gibbs and Madlib - Piñata (Madlib Invazion)
Piñata, the full-length collaboration between 21st-century gangster rapper Freddie Gibbs and 31st-century producer Madlib, lulls breezily between pro forma thuggery and Swisha Sweet insights, mixing progressive beats (sampled, not synthesized) with grizzled street raps (real talk, not fake Bawse boasts). But though this is well-trod ground, from the blaxploitation allusions to the Odd Future and TDE cameos (sorry, no Kendrick), there is innovation and illumination here, too. There is "Thuggin'," wherein Gibbs chops over frail guitar licks looped and sped up into an Americanized spaghetti-gangster soundtrack, thanks to Madlib's excavation of an arcane British library record, Rubba's "Way Star" (h/t WhoSampled.com). There is "Deeper," wherein Gibbs unravels a deeply metaphorical flip on Common's "I Used to Love H.E.R." and bemoans the decline of gangsta rap culture, "All for a nigga that ain't got nothing that I ain't got / Only difference is, he's tryin' to be a fuckin' astronaut." From the lyrics to the beats, the pleasure of Piñata is in the details. MOSI REEVES
Future - Honest (Epic)
Breezy in its boldness (12 tracks, under 50 minutes), Honest is a heavily considered album from the only reasonable rap star around. No one in hip-hop is as fascinating as Future right now: He bends shoddy guest rapper conceits until they match his high standard for sincerity; he steps up and delivers when confronted with a seasoned Southern rap legend like André; and he fully occupies varying rap roles (sturdy loverman, trap maniac) as if he were, you know, a complicated human being, not a living, breathing brand touching on multiple market-tested audiences. The dude contains multitudes. B.S.
Future Islands - Singles (4AD)
Future Islands frontman Samuel T. Herring is an actor whose ability to improvise allows him to transform his surroundings. We've heard a billion permutations of the tuneful minimalism of Singles' opener "Seasons (Waiting on You)," but it takes a real showman to free such a song from its nostalgic limitations. Get over Herring's Shatner-like earnestness like you did with Destroyer's Kenny G moves on Kaputt and you'll unlock the furrowed brows, baggy eyes and bulging veins beneath the metronomic perfection. Which isn't to say there aren't tracks here whose synthetic infallibility isn't the best part: "Spirit" cycles through the Junior Boys aural playbook in an efficient 4:22, and "Fall From Grace" is a menacing power ballad whose hooks are computerized whistles. Herring even screams on it. As he downpours about how "we slowly fade away," we're reassured that the end is just an on-off power switch away. D.W.
Hundred Waters - The Moon Rang Like a Bell (OWSLA)
Los Angeles-via-Gainesville quartet Hundred Waters' phenomenal sophomore album, The Moon Rang Like a Bell, is something of a Rorschach test: Maybe you hear the Cocteau Twins' ethereal shoegaze, or the engrossing trip-hop of Portishead. The peripatetic time signatures and squiggly beats evoke the cerebral sheen of Battles, whereas the warm electronic textures wash over you like those of Fuck Buttons. Singer Nicole Miglis is a classically trained pianist, so it's perfectly acceptable to focus on the fleet melodic lines she hammers out, but difficult to do so for long, as her seraphic vocals — squarely placing her alongside idiosyncratic sirens like Björk, Joanna Newsom, and Beth Gibbons — can steal the whole show in a heartbeat.
Then there's the OWSLA connection: The band is signed to Skrillex's vanity label, not because they sound anything like Sonny Moore's bombastic beats, but because they're clearly as enamored of grandiose electronic gestures, not mention unforgettable live experiences, as the dubstep ragamuffin is. For as much as there is going on in Moon, however, its signature achievement is focusing all of these aesthetics into a single beam of energy, Hundred Waters' uniquely compelling creation, a hot white bolt of sound that radiates from one of 2014's most exciting bands. G.K.
Hurray for the Riff Raff - Small Town Heroes (ATO Records)
With Small Town Heroes, singer-songwriter Alynda Lee Segarra and her backing band have woven together a tapestry of influences and styles. Recorded with engineer Andrija Tokic at his Nashville studio the Bomb Shelter, the self-produced LP not only channels doo-wop and Motown, but also honors the blues, bluegrass, country, and folk music. Lyrically, Segarra both salutes and mourns for New Orleans: See the harmonica-blessed "End of the Line," a love letter to the Ninth Ward, and "St. Roch Blues," a spiritual inspired by a shocking series of murders that swept through the city's St. Roch neighborhood in 2011. Throughout the album's 12 tracks, Hurray for the Riff Raff serve the underserved and give voice to those who might not feel heard. KYLE MCGOVERN
Isaiah Rashad - Cilvia Demo (Top Dawg Entertainment)
Cilvia Demo plays out like somebody slowly emerging from a depressive funk (or a cloud of weed smoke) and figuring his shit out, the first six tracks of Black Moon-by-way-of-OutKast acrobatics (see the breezy, shit-kicking title track or the angular jazz-rap workout "Ronnie Drake") giving way to cogent confessions from a pissed-off, conflicted young man with a nagging desire to do better. "Soliloquy" is the turning point, a quick, clear-eyed declaration of machismo that recalls Nas' "N.Y. State of Mind"; giving such an off-the-cuff, freestyle-feeling track such a Shakespearean title alone speaks to Isaiah Rashad's cozy ambitions. B.S.
James Vincent McMorrow - Post Tropical (Vagrant)
The realm of the alt-R&B troubadour has gotten mighty crowded in recent years. Twisting that genre into yet another shape is Irishman James Vincent McMorrow, who released a folk-ish album in 2011 called Early in the Morning that topped the charts in his home country. While the songwriting for this follow-up isn't radically different from his debut's slower moments, he's flipped the script entirely in a stylistic sense, moving into a space somewhere between How to Dress Well's falsetto choirs and the winter wonderlands of Bon Iver's For Emma, Forever Ago.
The real magic is in his voice, or rather voices: Possessed of a sky-scraping falsetto that draws audible gasps from crowds at his shows.
Kelis - Food (Ninja Tune)
Kelis has done a lot of (delightfully) strange things with soul music over the course of her career, from aggro-screaming "I hate you so much right now" over sugary Neptunes beats to examining motherhood from the perspective of a dance-pop cyborg. But Food may be her strangest move yet: It's an album of vintage funk and old-school soul cooked up by the queen of unconventional, sometimes otherworldly R&B. RACHEL DEVITT
Liars - Mess (Mute)
Liars don't simply write songs. They create musical translations of our collective existential crises. This means their music is going to be messy. It's going to be gritty and dissonant, dark and disorienting, agitated and absurd. It's why their seventh full-length is simply titled Mess — it's organized chaos at its most entrancing. And it pretty much encapsulates the band's evolution from scrappy upstarts in Brooklyn's turn-of-the-century dance-punk scene to witchcraft storytellers bashing nebulous sounds together to ambient-electro perfectionists. With Mess, they play all these roles, adding up as enigmatic electronic composers with punk sensibilities, Frankensteins transforming hardware into wetware. STEPHANIE BENSON
Lydia Loveless - Somewhere Else (Bloodshot)
Lydia Loveless only ever looks over her shoulder when the wind's in her face and she needs to spit. And she probably needs to. Desire lodges in her chest like a phlegm-clot; her mucosal tone earns those Stevie Nicks comparisons you've maybe seen. But you've got to imagine Stevie stripped of her scarves and witchery by a resentful coven, abandoned in Columbus, Ohio, with nothing to fall back on but her innate grit, developing the array of vocal slurs, catches, yawps, and leaps that a woman starting out with no expectations needs once she realizes she wants the world. And if that doesn't work out, and Loveless has to retreat defeated to her dumpy hometown? "I'll find a rich man's house and I'll burn it down." Which come to think of it, doesn't really sound all that unreasonable. KEITH HARRIS
Mac DeMarco - Salad Days (Captured Tracks)
In American Hustle, when Jennifer Lawrence's character goes on and on about "that perfume you can't stop smelling even when there's something sour in it," she could be describing the music of Mac DeMarco: breezy jangle-pop that might otherwise drift into the background were it not for an out-of-place chord or an organ bulldozing its way through an intro. Such sonic pratfalls are consistent with DeMarco's slightly off character, which runs counter to that of your ordinary indie rock dude.
"Treat Her Better," "Blue Boy," "Let Her Go," "Let My Baby Stay" — even the song titles sound hoary, like a girl-group album from 1963. It's all part of DeMarco's bait-and-switch, his earnestness peeking through the shtick as though he's never liked something ironically in his life. His patron saints appear to be Harry Nilsson and yacht rockers like 10cc, and rarely are either channeled with this little cheese and this much panache. JILLIAN MAPES
Many Arms - Suspended Definition (Tzadik)
For the truly Ill-adelphia/NYC guitarorrists Many Arms, there may be no more apropos home than pioneering avant-gardist John Zorn's Tzadik label for the trio's firestorm of mangled, yet cutthroat precise, jazz-punk fury. After all, the famed Downtown maestro did his part in cementing the prototype for Many Arms' brainiac aesthetic via the radical grindcore ear-bleeding in Painkiller and the surf/metal/country deconstruction of Naked City.
While six-string riffer Nick Millevoi, low end-monger Johnny DeBlase and powerhouse drummer Ricardo Lagomasino's formula of dishing out a clusterfuck of mind-bending notes endures here, the threesome have added to their arsenal. On Suspended Definition — their second effort for Tzadik and fourth long-player overall — Many Arms have dug even deeper into math-metal wizardry, bolstering their already imposing lineup with gale-force blowing guest saxophonist Colin Fisher, thus blasting their outré sonic blitz into a fire-breathing free jazz otherworld. BRAD COHAN
The Men - Tomorrow's Hits (Sacred Bones)
Very funny, guys, calling your fourth album Tomorrow's Hits, when there's nothing remotely commercial — or forward-looking — about such a sweltering orgy of noise. More to the point, the title evokes Phil Spector's slogan "Tomorrow's Sound Today," and this rowdy Brooklyn quintet has indeed crafted its own perverse, and curiously enticing, version of the crackpot producer's trademark Wall of Sound. While appealing melodies and inventive lyrics figure in the mix, the real payoff here lies in the masterful way the band blends brutality and finesse, and leaves you primed for more. J.Y
Neneh Cherry - Blank Project (Smalltown Supersound)
Blank Project, technically Neneh Cherry's first solo album since 1996, is a major work, one that confirms that she's only marginal in the sense that she's vibrating on her own wavelength, way out at the edge of the spectrum. This isn't exactly a solo album; while Cherry receives top billing, it's really a collaboration with the synths-and-drums duo RocketNumberNine, who wrote and played all the music. Four Tet's Kieran Hebden produced, but his touch is so light as to be imperceptible: The simplicity of the production, with its close room tone and general air of unadornment, lends to the impression that you're right there in the studio with Cherry and her bandmates. It's a slightly jarring experience at first, if only because that kind of low-key verité has become so uncommon in recorded music, particularly of an "electronic" bent. Some of the directness doubtless derives from the fact that they recorded all ten tracks in just five days; she may take her time between projects, but Neneh Cherry's week definitely beats your year. P.S.
Perfect Pussy - Say Yes to Love (Captured Tracks)
"When do we say yes to love?" demands Meredith Graves, frontwoman for hardcore shredders Perfect Pussy. This question frames the Syracuse-based band's Captured Tracks debut. Through sacrificial hardcore throbs and a DIY ethos echoing Fugazi's call for social justice, Perfect Pussy's Say Yes to Love is a terse, pile-driving response to societal expectations of happiness, and especially femininity. PAULA MEJIA
Phantogram - Voices (Republic)
There are times when the hazy dream-pop on Phantogram's second full-length flirts with the grimly wavy sound proffered by better-established bands like Beach House and the xx. But what makes this upstate New York duo's darkness uniquely compelling is their seamless blending of hip-hop influences with horror-film beats, which insures that their particular brand of brooding is complex and surprising, instead of simply sullen. BRITTANY SPANOS
Pharrell - G I R L (Columbia)
Pharrell Williams long ago mastered grooves, and sounds, and flash, but he didn't need to be a solo star, because he said everything he needed to say through his assignments, through his wild-style productions for everyone from Kelis to ScHoolboy Q. But his mastery of those things is evident here, resulting in the most booty-shaking, speaker-twinkling, glitz-intensive pop-soul record to come down the turnpike in years, out-dazzling even kindred efforts by Timberlake, Bruno Mars, and Miguel. The difference is his newfound sense of purpose. That stuff about elevating each other through dancing? He really means it, and embodies it here via the music's sheer exuberance, the softness and sunshine soul temporarily forgot. BARRY WALTERS
Protomartyr - Under Color of Official Right (Hardly Art)
Under Color Of Official Right seesaws between release and apathy. Frontman Joe Casey is frustrated by the inanity of the world, and he's frustrated that he has no better recourse than to be frustrated. As much as he might pile on to "Gluten fascists / Alt-weekly types" and "smug urban settlers" in "Tarpeian Rock," his rancorous, usually hilarious words never seem to merit much beyond a weary deadpan from their author; as annoyed as this wretched world might make him, it's clear that he knows that he's already lost the battle by getting upset in the first place. MICHAEL TEDDER
Quilt - Held in Splendor (Mexican Summer)
American folk music is often held as sacred, bound by hallowed traditions both acoustic and spiritual. So it seems almost too easy to name your ragtag, 21st-century folk band Quilt, but it's difficult to describe this Boston-bred trio any other way, their cloth cut from equal parts the Byrds, Mazzy Star, and the Mamas and the Papas, though the stitches threading their sophomore record together are far from linear. Alternating psych-pop textures, radiant Eastern rhythms, and acoustic licks, Held in Splendor defies what we typically talk about when we talk about "folk" music. P.M.
Ratking - So It Goes (XL)
So It Goes is a record that's a product of its surroundings: New York City, and New York City rap. From the jazzy morality of A Tribe Called Quest, through the esoterica of Company Flow, and the cockiness of the Diplomats, Ratking embodies an organic nostalgia: one that feels less studious (*cough* Joey Bada$$) or trendy (*emoji eyes* A$AP), than a product of listening to a whole lot of shit growing up. A.M.
Real Estate - Atlas (Domino)
Real Estate's first two LPs drifted along at a post-graduate pace, but Atlas is their most focused and professional effort yet. The addition of drummer Jackson Pollis and keyboardist Matt Kallman — who both became full-time members after 2011's Days — has bolstered the band's sound, and the lo-fi textures that Real Estate wore so well in the past have been washed away, giving each song even more room to breathe. The result is not a reinvention, but rather, a refinement. In its own self-effacing way, Atlas is a work of great confidence, a gorgeous testament to the kind of suspiciously casual understatement they've perfected, one that only comes with knowing oneself. K.M.
S. Carey - Range of Light (Jagjaguwar)
Much like a campfire, S. Carey's second solo album, Range of Light, is a quiet, slow burn. The follow-up to 2010's All We Grow feels elemental, almost like a mist-kissed travelogue that's rich with a sensation of discovery, but imbued with a comforting familiarity. Our guide has been here before, but he's just as gobsmacked at the sights as we are.
Carey serves as percussionist and backing vocalist for Bon Iver, but he's also a Boy Scout with a performance degree in classical percussion, who's been blessed with a stirring whisper of a voice and a wide skill set. He knows when to deploy shimmering harp strings ("Fleeting Light"), can fashion a beat out of footprints crushing into fresh snow ("Neverending Fountain"), and comman
ScHoolboy Q - Oxymoron (Interscope/Top Dawg Entertainment)
ScHoolboy Q, the most unambitious and conventional member of Southern California's ambitious, unconventional Black Hippy crew, drops scrunched-up, novelistic raps about street life over sizzurp-dipped, purp-clouded production. But when you consider Kendrick Lamar's whirling narratives about gang violence's effects on the regular guy, Ab-Soul's wild-eyed raps about DMT and Twin Towers conspiracy theories, Jay Rock's tough-guy tone poems, and Isaiah Rashad's harrowing tales of self-injury and family strife, a little conventionality can be refreshing: Q cuts through all his buddies' heady bullshit and just tells it like it is. That's the point of gangsta rap, right? B.S.
Sharon Van Etten - Are We There (Jagjaguwar)
If there's one album this year that's guaranteed to leave you emotionally devastated, it's Sharon Van Etten's Are We There. The singer-songwriter throws all her pain into her gorgeous fourth album, resulting in rousing musings on a crumbling relationship and the anguish of wondering whether it was all her fault. It's a more even affair than her 2012 breakout, Tramp, which mixed her folkier roots with more powerful dynamics, though here she branches out with synths and organs (see "Taking Chances" and "Our Love"). But the real soul-crusher comes with "Your Love Is Killing Me," on which she repeats, "Burn my skin so I can't feel you / Stab my eyes so I can't see." Despite all the pain and doubt, Van Etten sounds more confident than ever on Are We There, adding more strength to her vocals without sacrificing the delicate beauty that makes them so haunting. You might feel like a wreck after listening, but the roller coaster ride is worth the price of admission. DAN REILLY
The Shrine - Bless Off (Tee Pee)
The Shrine are the best of the new-school "skate-rock" bunch, sounding basically like early-'80s L.A. punk and mid-'70s doing-donuts-in-the-parking-lot hard rock at the same time, like if Black Flag circa between Damaged and My War loved life more than they hated it and liked Thin Lizzy/early Van Halen/old Aerosmith/pre-Nazi Ted Nugent as much as they did Sabbath. Which is to say, this band's stop-and-start lurching feels too hamburger-fed and healthy to be hardcore, with one of the most proficiently engine-room-like rhythm sections in recent rock memory, and gratifyingly little if any slow-for-slow's-sake "sludge" dry-rot or fast-for-fast's-sake "mosh" malarkey. CHUCK EDDY
St. Vincent - St. Vincent (Loma Vista/Republic)
St. Vincent is the sound of getting over it; reviews and features have fixated on its confidence, but what's more impressive is its liberation. Annie Clark has made an album free of the one issue that hamstrung its three predecessors: the sense that every turn was plotted in advance, that the fun was hemmed in by a kind of deliberateness. This one is lithe and liquid, shy of a masterwork but still a fucking great record, top to bottom. While her songwriting has never been in doubt, it's absolved of the showiness that stymied, say, 2009's Actor; now, if she's flaunting anything, it's how impeccable a pop technician she is, dipping between the rhetoric of classic rock (those Sabbath-y yawns of distortion), classical voicings, and tightly hyper-melodic pop blasts. She's never been more poised, and never been more casual about it. JESSICA HOPPER
Sun Kil Moon - Benji (Caldo Verde)
There are 5,287 words of lyrics on this album, the delivery of which sounds at first stream-of-conscious, but clearly isn't: Themes double back on themselves after long digressions, while details about family and friends crop up in multiple places, the whole thing coming off like an epic poem some enterprising comp-lit major might compare to Ulysses. But then the music is disarmingly straightforward: On most of the songs, it's as swollen and sluggish as rain clouds. Harmonies and double-tracked vocals, pianos and light drums — these sounds dot the landscape, break it up somewhat. But for the most part, we're out on a sonic steppe, and its desolate out here. G.K.
Swans - To Be Kind (Young God)
In its scope and heft and overall intensity, To Be Kind is very much of a piece with 2012's The Seer, an album that rolled up all 30 years of Swans' history into one huge molten supernova of ÜBERSWANSNESS. To Be Kind, which just as well could have been titled Everything Swans-er Than Everything Else, is essentially all that and then some, which is, truly, an awe-inspiring proposition. (If you are reading this review primarily as a consumer guide, by all means, just buy the damn thing, by hook or by crook; sell the house, sell the car, sell the kids, get the record, never come back.) P.S.
Tink - Winter's Diary 2: Forever Yours (Self-Released)
Tink is an 18-year-old Chicagoan equally skilled at brash, speedy-spitting rap and deeply felt, real-talk-entrenched R&B. Her raps have received most of the praise, though, especially after last year's Nicki Minaj-meets-Future mixtape Boss Up and "Wanna Party," a buzzy collaboration with weirdo club-music supergroup Future Brown. But Winter's Diary 2: Forever Yours, her latest and best release so far, mostly focuses on her R&B side, which itself has many sides to it: twirling-the-telephone-cord loneliness, punching-a-wall fuck-you frustration, totally-in-love-with-that-boy joy, and wisegirl pragmatism when it comes to determining what's actually important between two people. Tink is as likely to knock a dude over with her candor as she is to step back and take the "L" in a romantic battle, if it means winning the war for self-respect and emotional honesty. B.S.
Todd Terje - It's Album Time (Olsen)
With one notable exception, Todd Terje's long-awaited long-playing debut It's Album Time is solely instrumental, but always feels as though Terje [pronounce it Terr-YEAH] is singing via his sounds. His compositional voice is playful, but exacting, like an eccentric, joke-cracking professor who nevertheless schools well. On track after track, Terje dances to his own drum — not in that hokey put-your-hands-in-the-air way, but as if pop-locking breakdance kids had hooked up with Bob Fosse's Broadway babies to reinvent the funky robot for the 21st century. B.W.
tUnE-yArDs - Nikki Nack (4AD)
On the surface, Nikki Nack is a 45-minute panic attack about writer's block. But on a deeper level, it deals with reclaiming an authentic sense of self when a false one is foisted upon you, a problem she understands as universal. "Don't call me the real thing," she protests in "Real Thing," knowing the fakeness of such a designation. Merrill Garbus' F.O. attitude is still punk, the genuine outsider variety, but those jazz chords she strikes with honking background vocals overdubbed to resemble a one-woman horn section point to even greater harmonic riches ahead. As good as this gets, Garbus is still growing. B.W.
The War On Drugs - Lost in the Dream (Secretly Canadian)
To deduce the overarching themes of this Philadelphia band's third album, just scan the track list, which almost reads like a cry for help, given that War on Drugs mastermind Adam Granduciel is evidently "Under the Pressure" with "Red Eyes," "Suffering" while crossing "An Ocean in Between the Waves," "Burning" and on the way to "Disappearing" "In Reverse."
All of which is to say that, yeah, Lost in the Dream is less than a merry affair. Between the songs' obsessively recurring lyrical images (pain, darkness, disappearance, broken hearts) and the real-life backstory — Granduciel reportedly split with his girlfriend in the early stages of putting the record together — it's tempting to take this as a breakup album focused more on the Lost than the Dream.
If 2011's Slave Ambient represented a breakthrough, this one is an out-and-out star-maker that should rank among the year's best albums. Simultaneously spare and just as fully fleshed out as it needs to be, Dream is a perfect distillation of Granduciel's wide-open claustrophobia. The sound is more expansive than ever, even as its maker's songs seem more personal and less universal. DAVID MENCONI
Woods - With Light and With Love (Woodsist)
The Woodsist cult comprises an eponymous record label based in upstate New York, an annual outdoor music festival in Big Sur, and, at the center of this inconspicuous constellation, a sanguine little psych-rock band called Woods. For almost a decade, bandleader Jeremy Earl has attracted a flock of feral seekers and kindred spirits — some of Earl's early releases on Woodsist were by Kurt Vile, Thee Oh Sees and Vivian Girls — drawn to his homespun, sylvan aesthetic, most vividly espoused by Woods over seven self-released albums.
Like the rest, album number eight plays like an introvert's manifesto, music made with humble means and consciousness-shifting intentions. With Light and With Love sounds bigger, though, more accessible, conceived with an ear toward top-down, tear-out-of-town FM anthems of summers past. Certainly it's cleaner and richer than Woods' early lo-fi head-trips, with piano and organ adding elegance to the trio's guitar-driven squall. Earl sings of big things — loving, leaving, growing, dying — with a plainspoken poetry that observes cycles both celestial and human. JONATHAN ZWICKEL
Wussy - Attica! (Shake It)
Over the last decade, Cincinnati garage/pop/folk practitioners Wussy have refined a winning formula. Every 15 months or so, they break from full-time jobs (stonemasonry, waitressing, special ed), record a dozen-ish songs, play some clubs, then return to their 9 to 5s. Many an indie band can claim a similar bio, but few match the songwriting consistency of former Ass Pony Chuck Cleaver and formerly unaffiliated Lisa Walker.
With John Erhardt's pedal steel (re)added to the Mark Messerly/Joe Klug rhythm section, this guitar band's rangy Americana jostles alongside melodic punk blur and semipopular drone with the same deftness as fellow urban pastoralists Yo La Tengo. Gentle cascades of piano and accordion trade places with the Music Machine fuzz-grunt of "Rainbows and Butterflies," the Reckoning-era R.E.M. shimmer of "To The Lightning," or the lilting mandolin wind of Walker's ethereal "Halloween." Yet the most precious musical element remains the inspired vocal interplay of Walker and Cleaver, duties divided up with an egalitarian flair reminiscent of the Go-Betweens: Cleaver's shambolic warble, Walker's warm twang edged with hurt. J.G.
YG - My Krazy Life (Def Jam)
Boldly, My Krazy Life is in the vein of Kendrick Lamar's good kid, m.A.A.d city, with a developed, knotty and, ultimately, deeply moral narrative: YG parties and bullshits, breaks into some people's homes, argues with girlfriends, gets caught, and ends up in jail, his mistakes suddenly slapping him in the face as he apologizes to his mom. And sonically, thanks to DJ Mustard and company's humble eccentricities (obvious touchstones include L.A. jerk and G-funk, Bay Area hyphy, and Rick Rubin reductions, though John Carpenter scores, Detroit techno, and Trevor Horn's stabby synth-pop can be heard here as well), it's as out there as Kanye West's Yeezus. It just doesn't make a big stinking deal about it. If Kendrick and Kanye, bigger than hip-hop, are making the rap equivalent of Oscar Bait (and rap needs that more than ever, mind you), then YG and Mustard's ratchet music masterpiece is a sneakily ambitious genre flick. B.S.
Young Thug & Bloody Jay - Black Portland (Self-Released)
Between the haunting, silly "Danny Glover" and the gonzo collaborative mixtape Black Portland, yelping-and-flailing-about rapper Young Thug has owned early 2014. For an older generation of rap fans — along with those young folks still cluelessly parroting the views of an older generation — this has basically triggered one long conniption fit from anyone who fails to understand that hip-hop's millennials tend to coat their pain and pleasure alike in heaping helpings of AutoTune. Everybody is advised to just chill out, however, because this 21-year-old street eccentric isn't going anywhere.
Thug's batshit skills are prevalent on this tape: from his every-word-has-a-period-after-it delivery on "Signs" to the yammering pop-punk triumphalism of "4 Eva Bloody" to his toe-to-toe weird-off with refined mumbler Future on "Nothing But Some Pain." B.S.