2014 is half over already (whoa!), so here are my picks for the best albums of the year so far (in no particular order):
1.) Nothing- “Guilty of Everything”
After seeing these guys play one of the loudest, but most blissful shows I’ve seen in a while, I fell further in love with this album. “Guilty of Everything” is a seamlessly crafted 38 minutes of hazy, shimmery, “shoegaze revival” marked by just a touch of post-hardcore influence. Frontman Dominic Palermo’s previous project was the hardcore band Horror Show, which might explain the rather heavy sound that characterizes his unique brand of layered, distorted dream-pop. Imagine a slightly darker, more sedated, but still somewhat intense version of My Bloody Valentine or Cocteau Twins and you’ll get a rough of idea of their sound.
It’s a deep daydream-inducing sort of record that I find myself listening to in bed with my eyes closed, and it definitely makes for an interesting listening experience, as it alternates between being all warm, fuzzy and blissed out, then intense and assaulting with bursts of swirling dissonance.
2.) Taking Back Sunday- “Happiness Is”
I’ve been a devoted TBS fan since their much loved debut album “Tell All Your Friends,” and I’ve absolutely loved everything they’ve released since. Their latest LP, “Happiness Is…” is no exception. It finds the band in a strong, confident, and nicely varied place with their sound, melding their signature soaring melodies and explosive choruses with beautiful harmonies, bouncy rockers, poignant minor key songs, and an acoustic ballad that works so well as the finale to a very thoughtfully put together album. It’s impressive how they’ve maintained the youthful sound of the summer anthems that have made them such an iconic band, while adding in the more mature, reflective and refined edge that comes with being guys in their 30′s. “Happiness Is” will take its place right up there with TBS’ other albums and with the best releases of 2014. It’s thoughtful and nuanced, it packs the punch they’ve always been known for, with a little extra wit and wisdom, and it’s just plain fun to listen to.
3.) You Blew It!- “Keep Doing What You’re Doing”
With the resurgence in popularity of the nebulous genre known as “emo” and a Weezer tribute EP on the horizon, You Blew It! are definitely a band that will receive even more attention as the year progresses. Their latest album, “Keep Doing What You’re Doing” will definitely appeal to longtime fans of old school emo in the vein of Braid, The Promise Ring, and Cap’n Jazz. It’s angsty, emotional, and punchy, but also showcases a refined, nuanced sound and lyrical style from a band who has clearly come of age. You Blew It! are a shining example of the fact that emo never really died after all, and this album shows that the genre is more than alive and well in 2014.
4.) Manchester Orchestra- “Cope”
From its darkly powerful opening track, “Top Notch,” this stunner of an album pulls you right into its onslaught of heavy hitting rock that’s lyrically laced with themes of overcoming fear and grief, letting go, absolution, and even finding happiness. While the band’s 2011 release was more sprawling, orchestral, and varied in sound, “Cope” just hits you head on with straightforward, heavy indie rock. It’s chock full of some of the best riffs and hooks I’ve heard on a rock album in a while, and it’s a refreshing new direction for this ever evolving band.
5.) Bombay Bicycle Club- “So Long, See You Tomorrow”
After experimenting with several genres and styles and going through quite an evolution, these British indie rockers have released their best, most cohesive album yet. “So Long, See You Tomorrow” is full of intelligently crafted indie-dance beats, and lush, eclectic arrangements that create quite a dynamic, refreshing listening experience. If you’re bored with the current crop of more popular indie rock/pop and haven’t discovered this gem of an album yet, then get on it.
6.) Tokyo Police Club- “Forcefield”
After a nearly four year hiatus, it’s not at all surprising that Tokyo Police Club’s sound has shifted quite a bit from their excellent 2010 album, “Champ.” This latest LP, “Forcefield,” feels a little lighter and more mature than the louder, slightly frenetic sound they crafted in their earlier work. But it’s still totally fun, bouncy indiepop that you’ll want to turn way up. The band has achieved a well-honed electro-pop-meets-power-pop type of sound, and it really works. Imagine what would result if you crossed Passion Pit with The Strokes, and you’ll kind of get the idea. Standout tracks include the instantly catchy “Hot Tonight,” and “Toy Guns,” and the more chill closing songs “Through The Wire,” and “Feel The Effect.”
7.) SOHN- “Tremors”
SOHN’s debut album is a compelling journey through a dark, moody, R&B tinged electronic landscape, with his soothing but emotionally powerful vocals to guide you through the ebbs and flows. Each song is wrapped in delicately crafted layers of sound, ranging from intriguingly catchy, poppy loops to more somber, austere, crystalline creations. SOHN navigates a musical territory that’s somewhere between James Blake and the Weeknd, and he does it brilliantly.
8.) Seahaven- “Reverie Lagoon: Music For Escapism Only”
Three years after their pretty impressive first LP, “Winter Forever,” Seahaven have emerged quite a different band, presenting a much more subdued, stripped down set of beautifully melancholic songs. Gone is the grungy, gritty post-hardcore sound they’ve been known for, and it’s actually a welcome change that gives the band a unique edge, allowing them to stand out in a genre that has grown a bit tired. The sparse instrumentation of these slow burning songs makes frontman Kyle Soto’s achingly sorrowful lyrical material that much more poignant and fascinating to listen to.
Like combining chocolate with bacon or potato chips with soft serve ice cream, this strange collaboration between Chicago rapper Serengeti, New York producer Son Lux, and the elusive, genre defying indie prodigy, Sufjan Stevens, doesn’t seem like it would work on the surface. But put aside your skepticism and you will realize that it is oddly delightful and fascinating to listen to. The variety of beats and textures and the pairing of Serengeti’s witty, unconventional rapping with Sufjan’s dreamy singing coalesce to create a diverse album that will surely satisfy music fans with slightly offbeat tastes and cravings.
While the album is marked by a fair amount of dissonance and clashing styles, it manages to come across as playful and charming rather than jarring or inaccessible. And while they present some powerful lyrical themes, the three artists make it clear that they do not take themselves too seriously at all, a stance which is evident right from the bouncy opening track, “Calm It Down.” The overall vibe of the album may be one of experimental, freestyle fun, but several of the songs soar to beautiful, majestic heights; namely (and not surprisingly) those that more prominently feature Sufjan’s vocals: “Take Me,” “I Won’t Be Afraid,” and “Hardly Hanging On.”
10.) Say Anything- “Hebrews”
Featuring an all-star cast of guest vocalists and impressively orchestrated arrangements that use several string instruments to effectively replace guitars, this might be the most ambitious and Say Anything album to date. And that’s saying a lot for a prolific, iconoclastic musician such as Max Bemis, the frontman and brainchild behind this genre-defying band that has gone through a rotating cast of characters since its inception in Bemis’ high school days. He weaves together this wonderfully varied, intelligently crafted set of songs with his signature dramatic wit, biting sarcasm, and self-deprecation, all through the lens of a married man and new father whose 20’s are now behind him.
Honorable mention (only because it’s an EP, not an album):
My Mouth Is The Speaker- “In Focus”
I stumbled upon this band shortly after this stellar EP was released and wrote a piece on them back in April. Since then, Alternative Press has named “Your New Apartment,” the first song from the EP, as one of the “Best Songs of 2014 So Far.” Here’s a selection from my earlier article on MMITS:
“…Aside from feeling overcome by a huge wave of nostalgia for Hot Rod Circuit and other late 90s/early ’00s emo/pop-punk bands like Piebald, The Movielife, and Midtown, I was blown away by the way MMITS seem to revive aspects of that signature sound that defined my teens and early 20’s in a way that’s completely fresh and unique. There are lots of newer bands out there whose sound is clearly influenced by that “old school” emo/pop-punk sound, but who just don’t stand out to me. They get lost in a sea of bands that sound too similar or generic. MMITS are completely different. While I hear hints of the music I loved in high school in their songs, I also hear a style of indie rock/pop-punk marked by songs that are melodic and tightly crafted and also a little raw and gritty. It’s a style of rock I wish I heard more often, but maybe the fact that I seldom find bands who have crafted this quality and caliber of sound means that MMITS are rare breed…”