albumslykke120. Lykke Li
I Never Learn
[LL Recordings/Atlantic]

I Never Learn is Lykke Li’s Blood on the Tracks. That is to say, this is the album on which the Swedish songwriter has abandoned any pretenses and surrendered to pure, unvarnished pain through her music. While her previous two albums were riddled through with earworms like “Dance Dance Dance,” I Never Learn is a harrowing journey through razor-edged acoustic guitars and ghostly synthesizers. Above all else, Li’s haunted, heavily accented vocals dominate the album, sounding brave and mortally wounded. Songs like the ethereal, otherworldly “Just Like a Dream” and the desolate title track anchor the album, but the true centerpiece is the magnificently spare “Love Me Like I’m Not Made of Stone.” Over the simplicity of a guitar, Li pleads “Even though it hurts, even though it scars/ Love me when it storms, love me when I fall/ Every time it breaks, every time it’s torn,” with a yearning almost too painful to listen to. It is a master work for any artist, yet alone one still at the relative beginning of her career. – Nathan Kamal

Mac-DeMarco-Salad-Days19. Mac DeMarco
Salad Days
[Captured Tracks]

Mac DeMarco may be the newly anointed goof of rock, a lofty position held by Bob Dylan, Beck and Jonathan Richman throughout the years. There is just something about the young dude, whether it is the messy hair, public nudity or Limp Bizkit covers, that screams “slacker!” But that hasn’t stopped him from creating one of the best albums of the year. His third full length release, Salad Days, continues DeMarco’s evolution into singer-songwriter mode and away from the glammy, snotty numbers on 2012’s Rock and Roll Nightclub. From the opening notes of the title track, he sounds like he’s performing in a watery haze; the guitar is strangely out of tune and strangely right. Salad Days consistently sounds both dejected yet chipper as it focuses on that venerable subject: how to get along better with girls. While DeMarco frequently seems narcotized and his melodies are just about ready to warble into nothing, that just adds to the weird charm of Salad Days. – Nathan Kamal

freddie-gibbs-madlib-pinata18. Freddie Gibbs & Madlib
[Madlib Invazion]

Piñata was a landmark record in 2014, pairing legendary producer Madlib’s stitched-together beats with Freddie Gibbs’ smooth flow and heavy gangsta rhymes for one of the most exciting and surprisingly effective collaborations of the year. It ends up feeling like a spiritual successor to the sample-rich, hook-less vibes of the critically-lauded Madlib/MF Doom collab Madvillainy—10 years old this year—but Piñata is entirely its own package, with its own goals and methods. The hooks are there, for one, gracing the sugary soul numbers (“Harold’s”) and hard-edged gangsta tracks (“Shitsville”) alike, and Gibbs is remarkably adept at keeping up with the genre shifts and left-field flourishes that the veteran Madlib throws his way. Then, of course, there’s the staggeringly talented guest list, from Scarface and Raekwon to newer faces like Danny Brown, Ab-Soul, Earl Sweatshirt and Domo Genesis, who each elevate the material in their own unique ways. Still, there’s no mistaking that Gibbs and Madlib are the stars of this set. In bringing together one of the most singular producers of underground hip-hop with one of the modern voices of hardcore, street-savvy rhymes, Piñata invents a new kind of gangsta rap: elegant, experimental and dense with a variety of styles, as dark as they are strange, and as inventive as any album in 2014. – Colin Fitzgerald

cloudnothingshereand117. Cloud Nothings
Here and Nowhere Else

Here and Nowhere Else takes its title from a lyric in “I’m Not Part of Me”: “It starts right now, there’s a way I was before/ But I can’t recall how I was those days anymore/ I’m learning how to be here and nowhere else.” The line has multiple resonances for a band four albums into its career, struggling to define its sound. In general, they are distancing themselves from their earlier LPs: anything from Attack on Memory smacking faintly of indulgence has been stripped from Nowhere Else. Lyrically, this results in a pleasant one-dimensionality; the songs are mostly bereft of the Big Ideas of punk rock, or at least any gestures towards such ideas. This ends up being a winning formula for leader Dylan Baldi, as the attempt to deepen lyrics often proves to be a stumbling block for writers in his position. With that said, even as he attempts to harshen Cloud Nothing’s sound, Baldi demonstrates a delightful inability to write un-catchy songs. Their latest is supposed to ditch some of the last album’s listenability, and this is achieved to an extent; the songs tend to take longer to like. But they are still drawn from the same well, and Nowhere Else, truthfully told, has more hooks than a tackle box. If “I’m Not Part of Me” is any evidence, though, Cloud Nothings would do well to continue in this direction. – Owen Duff

against-me16. Against Me!
Transgender Dysphoria Blues
[Total Treble/Xtra Mile]

Even without the highly-publicized experience of Against Me! vocalist Laura Jane Grace’s transition as a transgender woman, Transgender Dysphoria Blues would be a notable punk headrush on the strength of its simple hooks alone. It’s the combination of these exceptionally entertaining tracks with Grace’s lyrical perspective that makes Transgender Dysphoria Blues such a triumphant document. The self-destructive character at the center of these songs explores a gamut of universal emotions but defines an experience foreign to many listeners—rocketing between hope, aggression, shame, resentment and empowerment—all the while channeling Grace’s powerful insights through the welcoming bliss of punk energy. Grace sings, “There’s a brave new world that’s raging inside of me,” and the line feels like an invitation to feel the same. When she expertly addresses misogyny and rejection (“You’ve got no cunt in your strut/ You’ve got no hips to shake” but “You want them to see you like they see every other girl”), Grace balances sharp anger with tragic empathy. Transgender Dysphoria Blues is both a proud call to arms and a thrilling exercise in catharsis, recognizing the pain in transformation and broadcasting it to the public in as daring a way possible. – Michael Merline

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One Comment

  1. David Hume

    December 20, 2014 at 11:23 am

    Thanks for that, Nathan. YOGP


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