When the City Paper sent out the albums-of-the-year assignment to our music writers, we made it clear that their lists did not have to include local bands. But seeing as how Charleston's music scene has produced some of the most inspired albums of 2014, it was no surprise to see local acts get plenty of mentions. This year's list included include records from the Holy City's Shovels & Rope, Punks&Snakes, SUSTO, Grace Joyner, and Michael Flynn, plus Columbia's Stefanie Santana. These albums made us smile, cry, dance, and sing along. Here's to more music magic in 2015.
Shovels & Rope, Swimmin' Time
Charleston's darling, do-no-wrong duo Shovels & Rope brought us their latest installment of Americana gold last summer with Swimmin' Time. After only a few listens, tracks like "The Devil is All Around" and "Bridge on Fire" had quickly seeped into my subconscious. Anyone in earshot of my bathroom or car could probably hear my sad attempts at joining in on Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent's untouchable harmonies. A '50s-music obsessive, I love the doo-wop of "Coping Mechanism," and the sentimental story of "Mary Ann and One Eyed Dan" is so terribly sweet, I love putting that sucker on repeat though it makes me weepy every damn time. Just when I thought these sweethearts couldn't make my heart any fuller, Swimmin' Time proves they're not done with my emotions just yet. And for that, I am grateful.
Sturgill Simpson, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music
It's been an awfully long time since something has stirred me quite like the voice of Sturgill Simpson. My introduction came when my boyfriend heard Metamodern Sounds in Country Music on NPR's First Listen, and he promptly put it on a cassette tape to play on the way to the beach that day. By the time we reached Folly, my mind had been properly blown. Before we got out of the car, I sat and listened to "The Promise," dumbfounded by Simpson's amazing take on the '80s classic. With other favorites like "Turtles All the Way Down," "Life of Sin," and "Living the Dream," Simpson writes smart country music with a small side of psychedelia, a couple of goddamns, and a whole lot of heart. Originally from a little redneck South Carolina town, I've been crying out for some listenable country music since the mid-'90s. And though it's becoming cliché to say Simpson is the country music messiah, that's the honest-to-goodness truth.
For anyone who's ever spent any time at The Royal American, it should come as no surprise that the person to first recommend SUSTO's self-titled debut to me was owner John Kenney. More often than not, the album from Charleston's Justin Osborne and company can be heard over the venue's stereo — and I soon found out why. Produced by Wolfgang Ryan Zimmerman and co-written by Johnny Delaware, songs like "Black Jesus," "Vampire 66," and "Friends, Lovers, Ex-Lovers ... Whatever" tell easily engaging stories full of memorable hooks and lasting, powerful melodies. Since the record's spring debut, SUSTO has shared stages with the likes of Alabama and Band of Horses, proving I'm not alone in my love for these songs. The band's debut is a collection of breathtakingly great indie-alt-country music. But truth be told, SUSTO breaks genre boundaries, making it difficult to decide exactly what to call their music. Osborne says it's "whimsical Americana," and that sounds pretty perfect to me.
Echo and the Bunnymen, Meteorites
Lots of '80s bands just don't stand the test of time, but such is not the case with English pop-rockers Echo and the Bunnymen. Now consisting of just two original members, lead singer Ian McCulloch and guitarist Will Sergeant, the pair released their first record in five years last June — Meteorites. With an overall ethereal feel that drifts in and out of hook-driven balladry and dizzyingly beautiful melodies, every track is an other-worldly Brit-pop treasure. Meteorites is clearly designed to be enjoyed from start to finish, as all records should be, but if you must have a sampling, I recommend getting lost in the celestial "Explosions," the slow and spacey "Meteorites," or "Is This a Breakdown," with its echoing, heavenly harmonies.
Stefanie Santana, I Admit I am Glad
Though Stefanie Santana (formerly known as Stefanie Bannister) is based in Columbia, she can often be found playing at local venues with Charleston bandmates Kevin Hanley (bass), The Specs' Steve Tirozzi (guitar), and Nick Jenkins (percussion). She also came here to record I Admit I am Glad with producer Harper Marchman-Jones. Santana calls her music "DIY folk," which could mislead one to think the record is a shabby production, when that's not the case at all. Each song on I Admit I am Glad is expertly constructed with layered, lush arrangements and seriously great songwriting. Santana, armed with a ukulele and a knack for storytelling, creates interesting songs full of complexities while remaining uncomplicated. From the toe-tapper "Liar Song" to the more somber "Mutual Breakup," every track oozes with a loveliness I cannot get enough of.
St. Paul and the Broken Bones, Half the City
I hate to overlap with another writer's list, and believe me, it's been hard to avoid, but the fact of the matter is, if an album makes you shake, rattle, and roll, you better put it at the top of the list. Half the City is one of those records that's done it for me. Before vocalist Paul Janeway even sings a word, "I'm Torn Up" and its retro-brass tones summon some kinda feelings from deep down. The entire record sounds like something that could only originate from the sacred studios of Muscle Shoals, and that's because it did. Janeway, a nerdy-looking white guy, is the surprising source of vocals you'd swear came from Otis Redding's offspring. I interviewed him earlier this year and cheekily ended the call by saying I couldn't believe I made it to the end without asking him to sing for me. Janeway responded with a line from Redding himself: "I've been loving you." I melted. The cover isn't on Half the City, a collection of originals that prove that Janeway can more than hold his own in this modern world. If Redding could hear Half the City now, there's no doubt he'd be inspired by the state of soul music today.
Mode Moderne, Occult Delight
My Mode Moderne discovery came from God-knows-where, probably during a down-the-rabbit-hole kind of afternoon spent exploring playlists. I wish I knew who to thank, because this little band with a big post-punk sound is more addictive than sugar and definitely way better for you. Their recent release Occult Delight is as far as I've gotten in the band's catalog because it's hard to pry my ears away from this immaculate masterpiece. Band comparisons run wild in my head with every listen, so take it from me, if you like The Smiths, New Order, Joy Division, Interpol, or The Editors, you will go ballistic for Mode Moderne, the Canadian, 2014 version of every British new wave record you've ever loved.
Kishi Bashi, Lighght
My coworker Paul Bowers pointed me in the direction of Kishi Bashi, and for that I am forever indebted to him. When violinist Kaoru Ishibashi made Lighght, he wanted the music to be the focus; the lyrics came after the melodies were created — a method that really worked for him. The result is a stunningly beautiful creation I can turn to when I need something that takes me out of my head and to an exotic place. An exciting orchestral indie-pop journey, Lighght combines Ishibashi's classical violin talents with electronics and lilting vocals to achieve a luminous, heart-swelling collection. I saw a perma-grinning Ishibashi perform the songs of Lighght live, and it's clear that entertaining an adoring crowd is his calling. It's difficult to choose a favorite track, but try on "Carry On Phenomenon" for size and prepare to have your soul stirred a little.
Grace Joyner, Young Fools
Judging by my tendency to sing along to the words of Young Fools, it's safe to say I've listened to the record quite a lot since its spring release, and for good reason. Charleston's Grace Joyner writes songs that are instantly gripping. Though her captivating voice and the stories she tells underscore the album, the complementary arrangements complete the sound. Joyner plays organ while backed by keyboardist Camille Lucy Rhoden, percussionist Nick Jenkins, and bassist Dan McCurry, who also runs the album's label, Hearts & Plugs. Young Fools is about a breakup, but there's more to the record to get you engrossed than merely empathizing with Joyner's emotional roller coaster. My favorite track? "Love of Mine." Joyner sings, "He always said that I wouldn't make it, that love of mine," and I can't help but rejoice that, you know what, she fucking has made it — maybe not to the so-called top just yet, but she's made a record that could help take her there.
According to Last.fm's very scientific stats, Lucius' Wildewoman was one of my most-listened-to albums of 2014. The driving force behind this Brooklyn five-piece is a duo of female harmonies, which makes it easy to compare them to a certain Swedish twosome that's currently taking the world by storm. But Lucius is like a more mod First Aid Kit — with slightly stronger eye makeup. Wildewoman has folksiness for days, but sonic indie-pop ultimately defines the album's sound. Tracks to try: "Turn it Around" is as joyous as a carousel ride, while the more slow-going and gorgeous "Go Home" has the same ultimate-breakup-anthem potential as "I Will Survive."
Jackson C. Frank, Fixin' to Die
I heard Jackson C. Frank's story before I heard his music. The folk singer, best known for writing "Blues Run the Game," was badly burned as a child in a school fire that killed 15 of his classmates. His adult life was no easier: a son who died young, a long bout with mental illness and institutionalization, homelessness, and a freak pellet-gun shot that blinded him in one eye until his death in 1999. He only recorded one proper album, an eponymous LP released in 1965, but he has been cited as an influence by Paul Simon and Nick Drake. This year saw the release of Fixin' to Die, a collection of unreleased tracks and rough demos, many from later in his life. His latter-day songs are melancholy but not self-pitying, and his voice sounds husky and ruined. The heavy breathing at the start of "Tumble in the Wind" is enough to give a soul the blues.
Michael Flynn, Face in the Cloud
Formerly one-half of the power-pop duo Slow Runner, Charleston's Michael Flynn put out a solo album this year that combined many of the hallmarks of a great Slow Runner release — the heartachey lyrics, the fine falsetto choruses, the glitchy electronic bits — with a few new twists. The bombastic Chariots of Fire synths of "Winsome Lonesome" sound higher-fi than anything Flynn ever did with Slow Runner, and "That Danny Glover Feeling" wins the award for Most Effective Use of a Vocoder. I loved this album on first listen, and I only loved it more when I interviewed Flynn and found out half the songs were actually about fatherhood. I myself became a father this year, and the lament of "The Arrow at Your Feet" — that one day my girls will grow up and move away — makes me a little misty-eyed every time I hear it.
Wovenhand, Refractory Obdurate
The first time I heard Wovenhand's brutal, droning folk-rock was on a long car ride last year with four friends to swim at Silver Glen Springs in central Florida. We started out giddy, talking over each other and catching up after a long time apart, but then one of the guys put on a Wovenhand mix CD. One at a time, we shut up and listened, stunned and staring out the window as the pine trees flew by. Half an hour later, without noticing, we had all started head-banging. Singer David Eugene Edwards' dark-as-hell world music and aggressive alt-country have always walked the border of hard-rock territory, and with this year's Refractory Obdurate, he crosses the line and doesn't look back. Finally, his furious Pentecostal lyrics and megaphone delivery have found their match, from the punishing percussive attack of "Good Shepherd" to the breakneck time shift on "Masonic Youth." I don't know what to call this music anymore, but I want more of it.
Taylor Swift, 1989
My wife has been trying to make a Swifty out of me since we were in high school, but it wasn't until her 2012 album Red that I started to see the light. Turns out I didn't appreciate Tay as a country artist, but I freaking love her as a pop star. If I'm being honest with myself, I know that my weird fanboy affection is largely a response to her laboratory-grade charm, cooked up by media handlers and cultivated at every step of her career. I know that the real stars of 1989 are Swedish producers Max Martin and Shellback, who co-wrote half the songs with Swift and brought us the eminently danceable drums and horns of "Shake It Off." And I know it's irrational to still see T-Sweezy as the underdog when 1989 is going platinum. But I do, and I want the best for her. Go get 'em, Taylor.
Punks&Snakes, No Swagger
My favorites on this collection of rock songs are "Pirateland," a doo-wop tribute to Myrtle Beach, and "Great News," a piano-driven chin-up song that sounds like it could be about either a failed acting career or a failed relationship. I fell in love with No Swagger near the end of the second track, "Start to Worry," when guest musician Joel Hamilton jumped in with what I could only describe as an '80s Clarence Clemons-style saxophone solo. Little did I know that the whole album was studded with guest appearances from a who's-who of Charleston rock musicians, including Hamilton, Bill Carson, Cary Ann Hearst, and Michael Trent. Punks&Snakes frontman (and sometimes one-man band) Jack Burg had been keeping the embers of these songs warm for years, but it took new breath to make them really light up.
St. Paul and The Broken Bones, Half the City
I know I'm not the first person to include this absolute powerhouse of a seven-piece soul band on my best of 2014 list. An unlikely conjurer of James Brown, Otis Redding, et al, Paul Janeway's booming voice has the emotion behind it to bring just about anyone to tears. Singing with the energy of an excited evangelist, it's clear that Janeway most certainly did not miss his calling as a preacher. This album, which is utterly fantastic from start to finish, is proof he has the substance and the inspiration to deliver a beautiful message to listeners everywhere — his words just happen to be sung rather than spoken.
The War on Drugs, Lost in a Dream
A little bit Dylan, a little bit Dire Straits, a little bit Tom Petty, but mostly Lost in a Dream is a damn-fine collection from Pennsylvania-based The War on Drugs.
Originally formed by singer Adam Granduciel and Kurt Vile (who left to pursue a solo career), the band has managed to put out critically acclaimed albums since 2008. With the release of Lost in a Dream, The War on Drugs has definitely seen a little more action. With its ability to conjure pangs of nostalgia and images of the great wide open, this album was made for road trips. Alternatively, road trips should be made in order to listen to this album, whichever comes first, so long as your ears are taking it in.
Beck, Morning Phase
After 12 studio albums, each somewhat different from the last, Beck Hansen is kind of like Madonna, but way better. He's managed to reinvent himself as an artist a number of times, almost always successfully, and he's touched on nearly every genre imaginable to create some fairly out-there stuff. Yet when he puts out an album like Morning Phase, breathtaking in its simplicity and emotion, listeners are reminded of just how truly amazing Beck is as a musician and creator. Only that dumb dude at work who likes Imagine Dragons (and thinks he has great taste in music) would be stupid enough to think Beck's a one-trick pony. So next time that guy's standing around the water cooler, it's pretty much your job, having listened to this album, to set him straight.
Real Estate, Atlas
Real Estate has always been a good band. They're fun, they're easy to listen to, and they have a feel-good, Beach Boys-sorta vibe, even if there's occasionally something slightly more melancholy in their work at times. Before Atlas, I would compare Real Estate's albums (since we're in the midst of the holiday season) to Stovetop stuffing. It's really good, everyone enjoys it, but it's not even in the same league as that non-traditional, homemade, cornbread/pancetta/Brussel sprouts/truffle oil/dinosaur egg stuffing recipe straight out of Food & Wine. This album played on repeat at a pool party I went to over the summer, and at least five different people wanted to know who the band was. As someone who tries to play new music at social-type things quite a bit, hoping for stimulating convo to then follow, that has pretty much never happened. And then it did.
Although I'm not really sure what their band name means, I do know that indie-pop group HAERTS makes music perfect for the soundtrack to any 1980s high school comedy-drama, a la Pretty in Pink. With or without the inclusion of Molly Ringwald, the band has all the other necessary elements: the bombastic, Stevie-Nicks-inspired soaring vocals, courtesy of singer Nini Fabi; some wonderful pop sensibility; and enough yearning, teen-angst emotion behind it all to appeal to any girl/guy listener who's ever longed for someone unattainable — regardless of whether said listener was once a teenager or happens to be one currently.
Conner Youngblood, Confidence EP
I was first introduced to Conner Youngblood in a synagogue in D.C. The young Nashville artist opened for Australian folk-blues duo Angus and Julia Stone — but what Youngblood played wasn't exactly folk. Instead, he creates magical musical loops while his soft and sultry voice croons. Despite the four-song EP's title, Confidence isn't cocky or self-serving. Instead, Youngblood humbly confides to needing more confidence. The EP's title track gives hope that you can do anything but gently reminds you that sometimes you will fail: "I want to be calm like confidence, I wish I had it all/ We tossed in the air, we lost it in the sun/ Now there's nothing left to hold/ Oh, what has confidence become." Or on "Comatose" when he opens with, "I'm trying to find my confidence/ Mixed signals throw my synapse/ Keeps throwing off my syntax." The EP reminds me that sometimes you have to work toward some self-love, but it always helps if you've got some sexy beats to help you along the way.
Jenny Lewis, The Voyager
It's really a thing of beauty how Jenny Lewis can mix such ebullient and optimistic tunes with such heart-wrenching and soul-searching lyrics. The tone was similar when she was in Rilo Kiley singing, "You say I choose sadness/ That it never once has chosen me/ Maybe you're right" to a '50s-style melody. Lewis has done the same thing on her other solo albums (Rabbit Fur Coat, Acid Tongue), but 2014's The Voyager added some maturity to the mix. It's probably safe to say that this wisdom comes from the six years since her last release, 2008's Acid Tongue. But Lewis continues to tackle major life issues, from the disc's first single "Just One of the Guys," where she wants to be seen as more than just a "lady without a baby." Of course, the Beck-produced song is upbeat and poppy with some country twang looping in as Lewis questions society's need to pass judgement on a woman's reproductive status. But there's still a tinge of uncertainty in her voice — is it from societal pressures or her own? On "She's Not Me," there's a hint of playful '80s pop in the song as she recalls a past relationship: "Well, she's not me/ She's easy/ All those times we were making love/ I never thought we'd be breaking up." The melancholic, nostalgic tone doesn't match the beats, but it somehow works. And let's not even get started on "Love U Forever," which starts off sounding like a lady full of hope about her upcoming nuptials but then quickly turns to despair: "Like the feeling of hell in a hallway." Set to a classic rock riff, the song is like a life spiraling out of control. It's utterly heartbreaking.
Spoon, They Want My Soul
I was instantly hooked on Spoon's latest after I heard the first single "Do You." The electronic riffs are reminiscent of an early track, "The Way We Get By," which I embarrassingly discovered thanks to Seth Cohen and The O.C., and the lyrics perfectly sum up the emotionally mixed bag of revisiting past relationships. They Want My Soul, as a whole, is a more polished product than the sounds I was first introduced to — perhaps thanks to the Flaming Lips' David Fridmann, who produced the record. Whether it's the purposeful, abrupt ending on "Knock Knock Knock" or the funky beats on "Outlier," the technical aspect of the album is hard to miss. But even with the band's fine-tuned instrumentation, Britt Daniel's lyrics steal the show. Hiding behind the Bowie-esque beats and the trip-pop synths, the emotional wallop of the lyrics gets you every time. Take "Inside Out," for example. With its windchime segues that remind me of cheesy old sci-fi flicks, Daniel croons, "Time keeps on going when/ We got nothing else to give."
Bleachers, Strange Desire
Sometimes you just need some synth beats in your life, and that's why we're thankful for fun. guitarist Jack Antonoff and his side project Bleachers. On first listen, Strange Desire has a lot going on. It's noisy, and Antonoff's voice sometimes barely creeps into the music. But as you continue to listen, his voice is more pronounced — and it sears into you. At times you feel funny bopping your head while scream-singing along to the album's first single, "I Wanna Get Better." It makes sense to yell lyrics like "So I put a bullet where I shoulda put a helmet/ And I crash my car 'cause I wanna get carried away/ That's why I'm standing on the overpass screaming at myself/ I wanna get better." But the cheerful riffs just don't fit. However, it's that paradox that carries the album — and somehow lifts you up. There's hurt in his voice when Antonoff sings, "I would burn my dreams away just to stand in the thankless shadows of your reckless love" on "Reckless Love." And the emotion is palpable on "Who I Want You to Love" when Antonoff laments, "I will love what you want me to love/ I will bleed when you want me to bleed/ But I don't want to know too much of anything/ Because it all hurts me." There's a common theme of loss on Strange Desire, whether it's love, friendships, or life itself. But what makes Strange Desire soar is the fact that Antonoff pairs this darkness with happy beats, which is just what you need sometimes when you're going through a dark time. Plus, the disc features a duet with Yoko Ono, so there's that.
Sylvan Esso, Sylvan Esso
I first heard about Sylvan Esso from my too-cool cousin who attends the University of Vermont. But when I really listened to the band, it was thanks to Pitchfork, and they said to not be surprised if the band's electro-pop sound becomes the background of a car commercial. But if you give the duo — made up of singer Amelia Meath and producer Nick Sanborn — a shot, you know they deserve more credit than that. Sylvan Esso aren't ones to be lumped into a growing list of indie bands whose big break will be on the boob tube. Instead, their lyrics — and really, Meath's voice — warrant your full attention. Sure, most of Sylvan Esso's lyrics are double entendres, but there's something in their self-titled debut that makes you leave this world and get lost in a thesaurus of emotions — and sometimes we just need that in life. Their first single "Coffee" uses the metaphor of dancing ("Get up, get down") to explore love and its ever-changing tempos. In fact, much of the album is about sex. Just take "Wolf," where Sanborn creates a shifting melody that pairs perfectly with the idea of a woman being seen as prey: "But no birds nor beast does he eat/ He only wants the tenderest meat." Throughout the self-titled LP, there are moments that can leave you feeling sexy, desired, and wanted. But the same women who are empowered one second are conversely objectified the next. You don't know if you should feel happy or sad or what, but at least Sylvan Esso makes you feel something.
Blake Mills, Heigh Ho
Blake Mills is a musician's musician. I first heard him on his 2010 album Break Mirrors. I waited patiently for a new album and discovered that he'd been busy playing guitar for Fiona Apple's band and guesting on albums by Conor Oberst, Weezer, and Ed Sheeran. Mills' latest record Heigh Ho will never sound dated because calendars don't matter to this kind of music, and there are enough elements on this record for any type of listener. Mills visits the stylings of blues legend Howlin' Wolf and the instrumentation of The Beatles on the track "If I'm Unworthy." He demonstrates classical composition and touches on mariachi on "Before It Fell" and morphs a simple Johnny Cash-esque country musical song into a cinematic heartbreaker in "Seven." Listen to "Shed Your Head" if you want to stroll in the realm of the guitar virtuoso. Eric Clapton had this to say about Mills: "Blake Mills is the last guitarist I heard that I thought was phenomenal."
Damien Jurado, Brother and Sisters of the Eternal Son
My good friend Andy Pena introduced me to this album when we worked together. Occasionally we would have the office to ourselves, and we'd crank Brother and Sisters of the Eternal Son up and air-drum 'til our arms were sore. This album goes under Jurado's discography, but I believe that producer Richard Swift (Black Keys, The Shins) deserves a bit of the credit for transforming these tracks into ethereal masterpieces. "Silver Timothy" conjures up the sounds of Santana and leaves you disappointed when it comes to an end. Thank God for the repeat button. Meanwhile, "Suns in Our Mind" holds one of the catchiest arpeggiated keyboards I have ever heard. Jurado pushes folk as far as it will go before it becomes something completely different, something weighty. This entire album somehow feels so heavy without the use of distorted guitars or beating it to death with drums. Ultimately, Brother and Sisters is a meticulous, psychedelic, and brilliant collection.
David Bazan, Bazan Monthly Volume 1
I am a fan of control, and David Bazan takes command of this disc like no other. You may know Bazan from his former projects Pedro the Lion and Headphones. Beginning in July, Bazan released two songs a month over a five-month span. Each two-song record left me dreading the days between releases, but I'm feeling completely satisfied with the latest, Bazan Monthly Volume 1, a great mix of electronic pulses and acoustic resonance on a well-governed canvas. Bazan has a unique way of building instruments, one on top of the other, without making each sound fight for the listener's attention. He is a master of not only instrumentation but also the ins-and-outs of the studio. Studio nerds will appreciate all the subtle nuances that Bazan painstakingly includes on these releases. Listen to "Nobody's Perfect" for one of the most well-written and well-placed bass lines and "Impermanent Record" for a taste of how Bazan uses empty space to create noise.
Single Mothers, Negative Qualities
The first time I heard this album, I wanted to run or drive reckless or do cartwheels or talkreallyfast. It just made me want to move. Loud, abrasive, and snotty, Single Mothers make their instruments growl so lead singer Andrew Thompson doesn't have to. His ranting soars above snarled instrumentation, and throughout Negative Qualities, he shouts what I'm usually quietly thinking throughout. "Marbles" reminds me of the sound of breaking glass, while "Money" strays a bit from form, demonstrating that Single Mothers is more than a noisy band. This group has the capability of weaving melody with angst, and this leaves me excited for their future. Negative Qualities is one hell of a debut album.
Blocked Numbers, Blocked Numbers EP
Blocked Numbers has created a soundtrack for stalkers who are out on the town doing what they do best — creepin'. It's a sneaky album that requires absolute attention. Blink and you'll miss the subtlety that this record is full of. Minor keys and unique beats have me torn between feeling bummed and wanting to shake my bum. Being a fan of multitasking, I'll settle for sobbing on the dance floor. Blocked Numbers understand that sometimes less is more. In my opinion, it is the well-seasoned musician who knows when to give listeners a fraction of what they think they want. Listen to "Electric Gold" for a taste of Blocked Numbers' ability to control sound with airy precision and create tension with just a few strokes of the synth.
Kyler England, Golden EP
The latest solo effort from singer-songwriter and sometimes EDM chanteuse Kyler England was one of the year's most exhilarating experiences. Like stepping out of a dark room into the brightest, most beautiful rays of sunshine imaginable, Golden richly and evocatively explores the depths of what makes us human, warts and all. Whether it is a swelling, Enya-like piano-led number like "Beautiful Blur," the glorious pop-rock track "When We Were Young," or the undeniable, hand clap-heavy synth-pop title track, England fills each song with exquisite emotions that run the gamut from bittersweet to euphoric. The theme of living for the moment and not dwelling on the past and missed opportunities rings true throughout, but England does it in a way that avoids sappy sentimentality. You will want to be blinded by the light from Golden.
GRMLN, Soon Away
Musically, the best coast may or may not be the West Coast, but Sacramento's YoodooPark — a.k.a. GRMLN — made a strong statement with his latest album, Soon Away, that he is currently one of the West Coast scene's best artists. Having evolved from shoegazey instrumental work to pop punk on his first two releases, Park goes in yet another direction on Soon. From the rapid-fire drumming and fuzzy guitars on the blistering opener "Jaded" to the fun and energetic "White Lung/Black Lung," this album is raucous to the hilt. And Park doesn't pretend to make the album more than what it is — a dirty garage rock record that is going to leave you an exhausted, sweaty mess at the end because you're going to thrash your way through the entire thing — and that is why it ultimately rises above the rest of the rock releases from this year.
Coldplay, Ghost Stories
After the unmitigated disaster that was Mylo Xyloto, it stood to reason that Ghost Stories was going to end up being Coldplay's creative make-or-break moment. Boy did they course-correct themselves in a hurry. The band's most subdued album yet — "Midnight" is their trippiest, most chilled-out song to date — Ghost is filled with the sort of meditations on love and love lost that make this album perfect for listening to when you want go get away from it all. Slow-burners like "Magic" and the anthemic "A Sky Full of Stars" prove that the band still has a flair for big pop-rock moments, and Chris Martin
still switches between skyscraping and whispered vocals with the best of them, but this is a deeply introspective album that avoids much of the bombast that accompanied previous efforts. Ghost Stories is a much-needed — if unexpected — return to form in more ways than one.
Jessica Hernandez & the Deltas, Secret Evil
Good grief, this is a great record. Fans of the Detroit-based singer Jessica Hernandez knew from her 2013 EP Demons that she was about to make her mark — and boy did she ever do that with Secret Evil. Between splicing Motown, modern rock, soul, and '60s surf pop together with ease, and providing a ZZ Ward-like vocal delivery with the flair and showmanship of early Tina Turner, there was no aspect of this record that left you wanting. Hip-shaking dance numbers like the sorry-not-sorry anthem "Sorry I Stole Your Man" are worth their weight in gold, while the balls-out swagger of "No Place Left to Hide" makes it the album's biggest highlight. But seriously, Secret Evil is an album that is so perfectly and seamlessly executed across a variety of genres that you wonder how long it will take before Hernandez (rightly) rules the rock world.
William Fitzsimmons, Lions
Singer-songwriter William Fitzsimmons bookends this remarkably personal album — centered largely on his musings about broken relationships, like the one between his daughter and her birth mother — with two of the most extraordinary songs of the year. "Well Enough" takes Fitzsimmons' somber, subdued vocals and matches them with lines like, "I hope I made you well/ I hope you find wherever is your home," to great effect, while the ambient, otherworldly piano-ballad closer "Speak" is arguably the best two minutes of music you will hear in 2014. In between these songs about finding one's self and closing the door for good on a relationship, Fitzsimmons deftly, insightfully, and delicately fills in the spaces with thoughts on what breaks our hearts, what remakes them, and how we can continue to go on despite the rockiness of it all. Lions is a towering achievement.
Flying Lotus, You're Dead!
In 1972, Alice Coltrane wrote and recorded Lord of Lords, a meditation on the ascension of the spirit of her late husband, jazz great John Coltrane. More than 40 years later, Stephen Ellison, the Coltranes' nephew — and ostensible heir to their immense musical legacy — presents his own examination of the afterlife, You're Dead! As its title implies, the album reeks of death. But You're Dead! feels more like a wake than a funeral. With ecstatic energy derived more from free jazz than boom-bap, the record extols death by celebrating life. Or, as rapper Kendrick Lamar summarizes on "Never Catch Me," "Analyze my demise/ I say I'm super-anxious/ Recognize I deprive this fear/ And then embrace it." In embracing death — not as a finality, but as a vehicle for freedom — Ellison's illustrated just how alive he is.
Run the Jewels,Run the Jewels 2
In July, a New York City cop strangled Eric Garner to death. In August, an officer in Ferguson, Mo. gunned down Michael Brown. In Cleveland, just a day before Thanksgiving, a cop fatally shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice mere seconds after exiting his patrol cruiser. None of Run the Jewels 2 is explicitly about these specific events, of course, but Killer Mike and El-P recognize the world's creeping darkness and rage against the broken machine. Few are safe from the dynamic duo's blast radius — not casually misogynist beta males, not the clergy, not politicians (conservative or liberal), not dirty cops (see Mike's killer invective on "Early" and "Crown"), and not an irreparably broken prison system nor an increasingly stratified social caste system that immobilizes the poor and minorities. On Run the Jewels, Mike and El were pissed, sure; on Run the Jewels 2, they're downright livid.
Sun Kil Moon, Benji
Despite being named after a popular '70s kids' movie, Benji is marked by death. The titular subject of lead-off track "Carissa," is the second cousin of Sun Kil Moon's Mark Kozelek. Carissa burned to death after an aerosol can blew up in the trash — the same way Kozelek's uncle died, a tragedy he recounts later in "Truck Driver." "Jim Wise" helped his wife commit suicide, then attempted to kill himself but failed. Kozelek's grandmother is dead, and his parents, he implies on "I Can't Live Without My Mother's Love" and "I Love My Dead," aren't long for the world. On "I Watched the Film The Song Remains the Same," Kozelek recounts more personal experiences with mortality as a way of explaining that his well-known melancholy has been there since childhood — and he concedes he'll probably "carry it to hell." Benji is Kozelek's attempt, as he posits on "Carissa," "to make some sense of" death, "to find some deeper meaning, in the senseless tragedy." Over hypnotically repeating nylon-string guitar figures, Kozelek's songs are crammed with words and memories, with little regard for how they match up to cadence or meter or even rhyme. As a result, Benji comes across as unedited and uncensored — and all the more powerful for it.
Hiss Golden Messenger, Lateness of Dancers
The same song that closes Hiss Golden Messenger’s whisper-quiet debut Bad Debt, “Drum,” is the same one that closes Lateness of Dancers. On Bad Debt, the song’s ramshackle recording — M.C. Taylor tracked the song quietly at his dinner table, trying not to wake his newborn son, just feet away — laced Taylor’s chorus call to “Take the good news / Spirit it away” with desperation, as if it were a dying request. Lateness of Dancers’ version, with its exuberant fiddle and backing vocals, imparts a joyful, triumphant shine to the line, making it an ideological imperative. For Taylor, who’s long explored the inescapably complex notions and pain of living in the world by embracing them on their own terms, the line becomes a metaphor: His probing yields more questions, but there’s plenty of good news — the “couple of kids” in “Mahogany Dread,” the “babe waiting at home for me” in “Saturday’s Song,” the beautiful dancer in “Lucia” — to celebrate.
Ryley Walker, All Kinds of You
Ryley Walker's a 24-year-old kid who cut his teeth in the free-noise outfit Heat Death, a candle that burned bright and hot but twice as quick in Chicago's conflagratory experimental scene. But where Heat Death was furiously skronky and wildly explosive, All Kinds of You, Walker's full-length debut as a finger-style folkie, smolders with the most controlled of burns. Songs like the stormy opener "The West Wind" are intoxicating rushes that build to a keening head before quickly fading into quiet denouement, like a brief but intense summer storm. That Walker only recently took to pastoral music makes the song's mature movement the more impressive.
Lake Street Dive, Bad Self Portraits
Lake Street Dive has grown their fan base staggeringly fast, and although their infectious covers of Jackson 5 and Hall & Oates didn't hurt, it's the strength of Bad Self Portraits that's elevated them from clubs to sold-out theaters in the last year. There's never a lagging moment in the 11 tracks, each infused with the individual energy of the quartet's members and framed by creative song structures, sing-along choruses, and delicious harmonies. For fans of rock-laced soul, this is the album to play for your parents who gave up on new music decades ago.
Nikki Lane, All Or Nothin'
Not since Loretta Lynn first emerged from the Kentucky hills has such a badass woman staked her claim in Nashville. Sure, there are some seemingly strong female voices on country radio, but they'll all step aside when Nikki Lane enters the room. Lane grew up in Greenville and made a go at a fashion career in L.A. and New York City before finding her calling as a songwriter. Produced by The Black Keys' Dan Auerbach, All or Nothin' is pure outlaw-country gold from start to finish, playing out like a come-on to potential suitors, a warning to those who would cross her, and a table-turning take on gender norms as she seeks out her next one-night stand. The lyrics never falter, the band rocks hard, the melodies are catchy, and Lane sings like a sultry fallen angel.
The Barr Brothers, Sleeping Operator
The Barr Brothers offer glimpses of the slow-building epic beauty that songwriter Brad Barr is capable of manifesting, and Sleeping Operator is the first album in eight years that will make fans of his former band The Slip feel like they're finally coming home. From "Love Ain't Enough" to "Come in the Water," the collection reminds us of all the signature guitar riffs, yearning vocals, layered choruses, and studio mastery The Barrs are capable of.
Curtis Harding, Soul Power
Atlanta-bred soul singer Curtis Harding is a bigger deal in Europe than the U.S. right now, but a tour this year with Jack White has given him a boost. Fueled by tight bass lines, organ riffs, and Harding's impressive guitar work and relaxed but emphatic vocals (he's a former backup singer for Cee-Lo), Soul Power immediately puts its creator in the echelon of the soul greats. The sound of Motown is alive and well, but it's straight out of Georgia.
Jordan Igoe, How to Love
For the first year ever, in 2014, a Charleston music listener could potentially limit themselves to "shopping local" and not make compromises in quality or style. SUSTO's self-titled release is jangly Americana gold, while Coda's Chatter Over Dead Air contains shreds of genius and huge promise. Elise Testone's In This Life proved worthy of the national attention she's earned, and Dangermuffin and The Royal Tinfoil both released staggeringly creative collections. The nod for local pick here goes to Jordan Igoe, however, for delivering something so unexpected and ballsy. From start to finish, How to Love is gritty but melodic, bold and beautiful, even when the songs are titled "Food Poisoning" and "Go to Hell." And with the strong and witty perspective displayed on "Better in the Dark," she just might be the next Nikki Lane.
Tape Waves, Let You Go
Tape Waves' sweet, summery tracks mirror the ebbs and flows of a mid-July Folly Beach tide. The husband-and-wife duo harmonize in the soothing compilation Let You Go, a series of easy-going, beach-friendly vibes. The laid-back disc hums in soft strums, while its relaxed rhythms sigh sleepy echoes into your eardrums. While "Stay All Night" and "Looking at the Sun" offer two different time frames of seaside bliss, the tone is inescapable no matter the hour of the day. In fact, this album makes you feel like time doesn't even exist, but rocks like an infinite ocean upon which you are floating. Let You Go offers the perfect playlist for carefree summer afternoons, with drowsy vocals seeping into your pores like hazy heat waves.
Tiger Hudson, Burn
Painful memories resonate in the icily layered synth tracks and bittersweet vocals of Tiger Hudson's early 2014 project Burn. The collaboration, released with start-up label Scenario Records, highlights the lyrical sentimentality of Nashville-based Thi Lam and the electronic dexterity of current WUSC DJ Mason Youngblood. The Burn EP features a series of hypnotizing tracks that fall into the indie-electronic, singer/songwriter category. Lam's eerie falsetto echoes over an intoxicating electro-backdrop, building into a multifaceted synth trance. "Indiana," the most captivating piece on the disc, is an ode to Lam's niece who he won't get to see grow up since his move from South Carolina to Tennessee.
She Returns from War, She Returns from War
The recently released self-titled disc takes a different tone than the less-punchy, DIY July EP Coyote Soda. While both albums offer a similar feel, the self-titled EP presents the Charleston three-piece with a more fleshed-out, polished air. Steel-guitar, haunting harmonies, and raw lyrics dominate the four-song record. "Talking in my Sleep" pops with folk-rock-driven confessions, while in "Taylor Made," lead vocalist and songwriter Hunter Park sings a soft, emotional story alongside the chilling, whispering vocals of bandmate Jesse Ledford. In every instance, Park and Jesse Ledford's voices mingle in awe-inspiring ways, and I can't wait to hear what's next from this talented trio.
Volcanoes in the Kitchen, From the Hill Where We Counted Stars
Three-piece folk-pop family band Volcanoes in the Kitchen was a homegrown secret up until this year, emerging on the Marion Square Farmers Market stage before opening for The Tarlatans at the Charleston Music Hall. Gabrielle, Hannah, and Drew Hadley blend perfect harmonies into love-sweet, singer/songwriter ballads with a touch of twang. My favorite track? From the Hill Where We Counted Stars shines brightest with "You Can Close Your Eyes (Johnny & June)."
ET Anderson, Et Tu _________ ?
Experimental stoner rock revels in the discord of Tyler Morris' latest project, ET Anderson. "Acid Earlier/ Love Thy Neighbor" sends listeners spiraling down into a psychedelic-rock stupor, while "It's Not the Same, " is a more somber, melodic track with an anthemic, emotionally-charged chorus. I can't help but love the content yet disinterested attitude that sums up the whole project.