As we ease into the halfway point of 2014, it’s time to pause, light up the grill and enjoy the summer, bathing ourselves in the glorious new music that this year has yielded. We are pleased to present a list of albums that we feel have bubbled to the top of the heap. And while there are some significant absences (Lykke Li, Ought), we hope this feature will inspire you to seek out some of the smaller names here. Thank you for reading the site and we will return with regular content on Monday.
Freddie Gibbs & Madlib – Piñata (Madlib Invazion)
Piñata is the best hip-hop album of 2014. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Freddie Gibbs and Madlib’s Jordan-Pippen combo marks the first time I’ve ever had a hip-hop album as my album of the year. To be fair, though, it’s rare to hear a record this fun, cohesive and energetic burst out in any genre. Madgibbs’ brilliant debut is 17 tracks of hip-hop excellence with Madlib reinforcing his claims that he’s the best beat maker in the game and Gibbs proving old Tupac comparisons true. It’s one of those albums where it’s near possible to pick a favorite track. Is the Jeezy-dissing “Real” the gangsta anthem of the year? Or is it the cinematic “Thuggin’”? Or perhaps the epic posse cut that is the title track? Correct answer: doesn’t matter, everything on here is straight gold. – Nathan Stevens
Todd Terje – It’s Album Time! (Olsen Records)
It takes a special rhythmic imagination to make a dance record that transmits its message to the mind and body even if you aren’t on the dance floor. Norwegian cosmic disco producer Todd Terje has the kind of musical hunger that makes his records as listenable as they are danceable, full of rhythmic shifts and bright melodies that keep your brain and your feet in motion. It’s Album Time is this year’s Random Access Memories, but better, and centered on its own ‘70s pop cameo: 68-year old Bryan Ferry takes the lead on a mournful cover of Robert Palmer’s “Johnny and Mary.” It’s an unusually melancholy highlight on an otherwise celebratory album, equally at home in synth-pop and the bossa nova. – Pat Padua
Angel Olsen – Burn Your Fire for No Witness (Jagjaguwar)
Angel Olsen is unique in the world of “songstresses with a guitar” in that her guitar strumming is, honestly, as simplistic as it gets. The real emotion in her music comes from her tortured vocal and lyrics. And Burn Your Fire for No Witness does not skimp on the fragile emotion. Following up Half Way Home, Olsen’s sophomore album is an amalgamation of her music influences to date. A surprisingly cohesive blend of country and punk, Fire is a roller coaster of resentment, regret and loneliness and is all quiet devastation. Fuzzed out guitars and distortion feature prominently on the album, providing a grunge-tinged backdrop to Olsen’s emotional journey from “Unfucktheworld” (a track as brazen as it sounds) to measured acceptance on “Lights Out.” Fire is incredibly raw emotionally, and it seems as though Olsen has finally found the perfect formula to embolden her emotional songwriting. – Katherine Springer
Sleepy Sun – Maui Tears (Dine Alone)
Sleepy Sun has been homing in on this dense, psychedelic sound ever since Rachel Fannan dropped out of the band four years ago. At the time, they had found a balance between her haunted folk-rock flavor and Bret Constantino’s rawer expressiveness. In the wake of her departure, the band doubled down on reaching for the grand gesture and settling for the comfort of rich tube distortion. Every step they’ve taken since has added another layer of resonant haze to the breaking waves of guitar snarl and mazes of circling riffs.
They may fit the label, but unlike their neo-psych competition, Sleepy Sun doesn’t rely on overdriven amps and string-bending wails as a crutch for noodling; they harness that tonal palette with a sharply honed dynamic to create songs with enough structure and nuance to invite repeated listening. Maui Tears finds them reaching a new peak, blending some post-rock textures into their wonderful, mind-warping mix. Plenty of other bands can offer empty snacks of feedback and drone, but this album is a moving feast of sonic exploration. – Jester Jay Goldman
Real Estate – Atlas (Domino)
Over the past few years, New Jersey-based Real Estate has made a name for itself by crafting polite, buttoned-up indie-pop. And while Atlas, the band’s third full-length, has the spritely summer gems that the band perfected on past efforts, it’s embedded with a more subdued, more forlorn state of mind. These boys of summer have taken to cooler temperatures, lamenting loss (“Had to Hear”), coming to gloomy realizations (“Past Lives”) and enduring a sharp-edged longing for a future that singer Martin Courtney can’t fathom (“Primitive”). Even the album’s sunnier songs are tinged with malaise. “Crime” discusses “crippling anxiety,” while “Talking Backwards” finds Courtney wallowing in remoteness and misinterpretation beyond his control. All of this is set to a more realized musical approach that readily reflects the lyrical mood. Courtney and Matt Mondanile’s guitars punctuate each track with detailed, soulful purpose, while bassist Alex Bleeker and drummer Jackson Pollis sound tighter and fuller than ever. But instead of the band’s signature sound meandering along a sun-soaked shoreline (as it did on previous releases) Atlas shuffles down an empty, abandoned boardwalk. It’s certainly Real Estate’s most self-aware album to date, and that might make it the band’s best. – Michael Danaher
Cloud Nothings – Here and Nowhere Else (Carpark)
In 2012, Cloud Nothings released the critically acclaimed album Attack on Memory. The title has proven to be prescient, for on the latest Cloud Nothings record, Here and Nowhere Else, frontman Dylan Baldi sings, “There’s a way I was before/ But I can’t recall how I was those days anymore.” The attack on memory has worked. The new Cloud Nothings album is all about learning “to be here and nowhere else,” to seize the day, live in the moment and all that transcendental stuff. The guitars are louder, the melodies are catchier and Baldi’s vocals are more resolute than on Attack on Memory. It’s hard to believe that Cloud Nothings have topped themselves, but they have. – Jacob Adams
Eagulls – Eagulls (Partisan)
Yeah, that now-infamous letter they posted online might have made Eagulls into self-righteous assholes (or a pack of bratty ingrates, depending on your perspective). Others—cynics specifically—might see the pissy diatribe lambasting indie clichés as a calculated marketing move. If that’s the case, it was indeed successful, but both positions are irrelevant when weighing the merits of the Leeds quintet’s eponymous debut. While they don’t tread into much new territory in the post-punk terrain, the mines they lay detonate with refreshing fury. The record is a goddamn piledriver, a jittery pulse that frays nerves throughout (no coincidence the lead song is called “Nerve Endings”). Harsh as gnawing on concrete shards, the pummeling bass and drums, blowtorch guitars and George Mitchell’s howls create a sense of caffeine-addled paranoia, the kind that makes your eyeballs dart back in forth in their sockets. Unrelenting as it is, the record does graft some memorable melodies onto its abrasive screed, most notably in “Possessed.” After a listen or two, how can you not yell along with that chorus that seems to emit from a bottomless hole? – Cole Waterman
Alynda Lee Segarra is out to make timeless Americana music for the modern age. On Hurray for the Riff Raff’s latest, Small Town Heroes, she reinterprets classic tropes with a deft hand and puts her own stamp on them. She was born in the Bronx and is of Puerto Rican descent. At age 17 she ran away from home and hopped railcars all across the country before finally settling in New Orleans. It is presumably difficult to do that without picking up a banjo or a guitar and writing some great hobo tunes somewhere along the way.
This is melting pot music, a rich gumbo of songs influenced not only by the American folk music songbook of the past, but also by modern tales of struggle and redemption (Segarra is also a feminist and queer ally). The songs on this album are by turns jovial and melancholy, heartbreaking and homesick. Yet as a whole they seem to speak to that personal feeling of a lost American wanderlust and the nostalgia of hitting the proverbial road, and finding the trail back home. Small Town Heroes is Hurray for the Riff Raff’s sixth LP, and it shows a band ready for the national attention they have begun, deservedly, to attract. – Isaac Kaplan-Woolner