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Rockin' My Turntable In 2014: Tankboy

By Tankboy in Arts & Entertainment on Jan 23, 2015 5:00PM

Photo by Travis Wiens
Enough time has passed to more objectively view what 2014 had to offer musically. I admit that last month I felt like last year's offerings were largely a wash; with time and distance from too many op-eds to count, my position has softened some.

There were many fine songs and decent albums, but even with that caveat 2014 was missing much that felt truly compelling: pop music continued to eat itself; underground hip-hop grew in stature even if it felt ever more ephemeral; country music grew so formulaic you could literally layer songs over each other without changing the basic melody or rhythm of any of them; indie rock continued to look largely backward for much of its inspiration … the list goes on. The digital landscape has truly leveled the playing field but it's also led to a deluge that washes over everything, eroding music into a flat plain with few elevations. It's so much finely ground sand and it's hard to find grains that stand out.

This leads to an abundance of good music but carries the trade-off of a dearth of great music. This isn't the first time I've pointed this out and I'm sure it won't be the last—for now, this is the new normal. (And I'll admit that, as a fan of music, this sure as hell beats the old normal.) But there is a danger here and I do think we're approaching a new realm of gatekeepers a la the major label system, only now it's driven mostly by websites hungry for page views and music industry types eager to gorge that system on the same bands over and over again, bands who can afford the clout. To the average reader this isn't any better of a situation and I know that we, as a website, have done our best to counter this system by writing honestly, and hopefully compellingly, about music from all over the spectrum. I know that I, personally, write from a standpoint of love and conviction for music and I hope that comes through.

It's in that spirit that the following list picks out 20 releases that moved me this year. Many of them did so by punching though the waves of other bands with voices that rose above that eroded digital plain. As in previous years, the bands are listed in random order; I simply can't bring myself to try and rank these albums since I like them all so much. Sure, there might be a few I like a little bit more than others and got a little more play, but these deserve to be ingested as smorgasbord, so read on then gorge away.

2015_01_against_me.jpg Against Me! - Transgender Dysphoria Blues
Transgender Dysphoria Blues saw Against Me! taking their already impressive take on punk and elevating into the stratosphere. Laura Jane Grace's lyrics and vocal delivery took no prisoners as she addressed complicated issues and turbulent emotional subjects head on. And her bandmates met that fearlessness and buttressed it with their own ferocious musical approach.

No matter how many times I played this album it always sounded fresh, its urgency never waned and its impact never weakened.

Transgender Dysphoria Blues is pure in its power and is one of the most remarkable albums I've encountered in a long time.

2015_01_ex_hex.jpg Ex Hex - Rips
Earlier this year I said, "This is a band that feels wrapped in the attitude of leather and sweat wielding great big, fat, ripping guitar tones to make a noise that can't be denied. When we heard their first 7"-inch "Hot And Cold," we thought the band could easily just release slow and steady stompers but Rips shows Ex Hex can slay the listener at every tempo." Months later their noise still can't be denied and the adrenaline rush that is Rips continues to carry me along in its current. Their simple attack unleashes multiple pleasures and proves straightforward rock and/or roll is alive and well.

Keep an eye on Ex Hex, because if their debut is this good they have the potential to be one of our new great bands. And they deliver live, as well, showing these songs explode both onstage and off.

2015_01_tom_schraeder.jpg Tom Schraeder - gush
gush saw Tom Schraeder return to a more conventional mode of songwriting after years of wild experimentation. The result is an album so thick with meaning informed by the stylistic forays in every direction that preceded its release. It's a mature, hard hitting, lush collection of songs—this is timeless pop that feels deeply soulful and immediate even as it reaches for the rafters with audacious production and sublime studio finesse.

gush sees Schraeder at the height of his powers, harnessing themes and sounds that are larger than life, and brings it all together t a human, intimate level even as the sonic palette swells all around him.

The album had a limited release in 2014, so if you didn't grab a copy then, do not despair. gush will see a much wider release later this year so subscribe to Schraeder's mailing list so you can be notified when that happens.

2015_01_dead_stars.jpg Dead Stars - Slumber
2014 was the year the mid-'90s truly came back in force as bands that grew up on record collections built from the indie explosion of that time influenced a new generation of musicians. Many group's merely mirrored the sounds from that time—which was still a delightful treat to these ears—but few made the reach to make that sound their own and infuse it with a life that felt immediate and new.

Rarely can a band win me over so completely upon an initial listen—I was definitely a fan of their earlier EPs—and still hold on to my attention months later and make each listen feel just as fresh and new. That's really exciting.

Dead Stars' bummer summer anthems made the sound all their own and provided the genuine rush of transforming history into something brand new that gives you hope for the future.

2015_01_hiawata.jpg Hiawata! - The Darkside
The best Weezer-influenced album this year didn't come from Weezer, it came from this quintet from Oslo. Their previous albums have always shown an expert ear for killer hooks and propulsive melodies, but The Darkside saw them returning after a three year hiatus with their most powerful collection of songs yet.

The Darkside is filled with three minute bursts of infectious musical confections, that linger in your ears long after the final chords have melted away.

The trope gets trotted out constantly, but this is truly music that picks up where Weezer's Pinkerton left off, without resorting to slavish copying. I say this picks up where that sound left off because this sound is wholly Hiawata!'s own, and its the fact that it sounds uniquely theirs that makes this album sound so rooted in the moment.

2015_01_ok_go.jpg OK Go - Hungry Ghosts
Does it drive me crazy that OK Go releases album after nigh perfect pop album of stunningly consistent quality yet so many folks seem intent on writing them off as an inventive band mostly expert at creating memorable videos? Yes, that does drive me crazy.

On Hungry Ghosts, OK Go has created another LP that doesn't contain a single misstep, and one that even ups the ante by grafting a more deeply emotional story to their insanely catchy hooks and rhythms.

This is a band that draws from so many influences its pointless to map them out, especially since once they're done blending them all together the result could only come from the limbs and brains and guts of OK Go.

2015_01_dangelo.jpg D'Angelo and The Vanguard - Black Messiah
A thick, murky R&B soup that was over a decade in the making, this could have easily simultaneously been both the biggest surprise—coming unexpectedly in late December—and biggest letdown of 2014. Instead it showcased D'Angelo as an artist still willing to press against the boundaries of recognizable to create deeply moving pieces that were more spiritual and emotional movements rather than attempts at anything that would be considered conventional soul. Instead of the years yielding stiffly crafted compositions, all that time allowed D'Angelo and his collaborators to dish out a stew that was impossibly layered—carrying through so many different flavors—yet incredibly immediate. Like quicksand, its warm charms draw you in and refuse to let go so you needn't bother struggling. Just sink into its embrace.

2015_01_spoon.jpg Spoon - They Want My Soul
Seeing Spoon on these year-end lists isn't remarkable, until you consider that the band has been creating music that maintains what should be an impossibly high standard for over 20 years. On They Want My Soul, the band delivers yet another great collection of taut, guitar pop, and this would have been plenty but the band decided to bring in some daring outside producers to twist and stretch their formula to reveal even more intricate gear work at play throughout the album. You need look no further than the LP's first two songs to see this in action as the boilerplate Spoon of "Rent I Pay" melts into the languid, sample heavy yet emotionally evocative "Inside Out." It’s masterful and laudably daunting collection of songs that still feel accessible, human, and wondrous.

2015_01_sloan.jpg Sloan - Commonwealth
The trick of Sloan's Commonwealth is that it's actually four mini solo albums that sound like a single integrated offering from the full band. It's a nifty trick that speaks to just how deeply the members creative impulses overlap, and it yields another collation of timeless pop from this quartet of Canadians. Like Spoon, this is a band that is still prodigiously creative two decades into their career, confounding conventional expectations of a band at this stage in their career slowing down, instead producing amazing work and still managing to challenge even themselves without alienating fans with music that doesn’t feel true.

When this album first came out many worried that it could possibly mark an end for the band. But I think this is actually Sloan marking a new beginning as they constantly search for new ways to challenge themselves. How many bands can take that kind of chance without letting down even die hard fans? There aren't many, but Sloan is one of them.

2015_01_broncho.jpg Broncho - Just Enough Hip To Be A Woman
Broncho's music is based on genres that feel very '60s and '70s at their roots, but there's a slippery quality to their approach that keeps you from quite putting your thumb on their influences. Is it glam? Straightforward classic rock? C-60 indie rock? North Texas garage-pop? The production verges on the minimal, but loud, chuggy guitars fight their way to the front of the mix, a mix that seems to have the "swagger" knob turned to 11. The vocals have a yelp, teenage quality that makes them oddly endearing, with a bit of a sneer but not even conviction directed to that quality to make the delivery feel mean. Just Enough Hip To Be A Woman feels like it's rooted in midnight drives around the city, punctuated by early morning house parties and bottomless plates of french fries at all night diners. It feels alive.

2015_01_gibralter.jpg Gibraltar - The New Century
Seattle's Gibraltar brings a complicated, brainy approach to their songwriting that results in soaring epic songs that seem fit for stadium sing-alongs despite themselves. There's a twisty density to the music itself which lends an air of desperation to the band's delivery. The emotional undercurrent is one of always reaching, always grasping, always trying to reach some sort of conclusion that's just out of reach. This keeps you on the edge, giving these mini anthems a weird dichotomy of life that feels inspiring and hopeful even as the darkness slithers at the edges, fighting off any sense of peaceful resolution. This is the sound of an earlier time when bands tried to figure out how to graft art-damaged sensibilities onto songs that would pull people in and not keep them at antiseptic arm's length. It's not easy to do, but when you can‚ and Gibraltar does—it's impressive.

2015_01_nicki_minaj.jpg Nicki Minaj - The Pinkprint [Deluxe Version]
The Pinkprint certainly has plenty Nicki Minaj's signature sexual bravado—her duet with Beyoncé, "Feeling Myself" is probably my favorite of that bunch as it mixes humor and unexpected lyrical twists to create something genuinely eye-popping—but for the most part this album is a somber and self-reflective affair. Failed relationships and the challenges and worries of motherhood skitter over spare beats and icy stabs of synth to create the kind of music I certainly didn't expect to emanate from the force of nature that so dominated Kanye West's "Monster" just a few years ago.

Most people are familiar with "Anaconda," the party tune liberally borrowing from Sir Mix-a-Lot's "Baby Got Back," but to my ears that's a red herring in an album of surprising depth. Dig deep into The Pinkprint and I think you'll find Minaj finally figuring out how to harness and hone her artistic tools to create work that lives beyond a moment in time and feels deeper than much of the other pop and hip-hop that rubs up against her.

2015_01_bishop_allen.jpg Bishop Allen - Lights Out
Bishop Allen certainly doesn't rush the release of their albums, taking years between each one to carefully craft the next, but that attention to detail pays off handsomely. Lights Out is probably one of the, if not the, most perfectly assembled albums I heard this year. As I said in September of last year, "The band's primary songwriters—Justin Rice and Christian Rudder—combine their efforts to create breezy guitar pop that leaps out of the speakers and brightens up a room. Songs like "Start Again" and the album's masterpiece, the shoulda-been-summer-anthem "Good Talk," demonstrate the band's greatest strengths as they mix the sugary pleasures unleashed through the internal chemistry of emotional turmoil. As a whole, Lights Out functions as a collection of bittersweet summer jams that contrast the temporal nature of the world around you with cognizance of the beauty that accepting that universal truth unleashes and undeniable positivity."

2015_01_drowners.jpg Drowners - Drowners
Twelve songs in 28 minutes, Drowners is what would happen if The Strokes collaborated with the Futureheads. Continuing the comparisons, earlier this year I said, "It's as if Wire went bubblegum pop. There's a taut economy to the songwriting that gives the music the impression that it flutters your hair as it whisks by, but the melodies are syrupy enough that they linger and settle, grounding the listener in the moment of the song. It's the sound of late night parties and youthful ambition and the thrill of vibing off the city that surrounds you."

This album didn't make me think too hard, it just made me feel good every time I put it on. Follow my lead—give in to the direct pleasures this band has to offer. And if you have a chance to see them live, I highly recommend it. The group has energy that spills over the lip of the stage and a charisma that feels honest instead of haughty.

2015_01_charli_xcx.jpg Charli XCX - Sucker
Speaking of not thinking too hard, Charli XCX was my personal late year breakthrough artist. After waiting months and months for a truly great pop album—I really enjoyed Taylor Swift's 1989 and Ariana Grande's My Everything but both felt a tad too calculated and carefully constructed to truly win me over—along comes the overwhelming force that is Charli XCX. Sucker is filled with loud guitars over bombastic beats, and this overdriven nature is necessary since her voice is an attitude-filled force of nature that pushes everything in its way aside and swallows it in its turbulent wake.

These songs are big dumb pop in the best sense; in fact in 2014 this was the best big pop for me.

2015_01_chromeo.jpg Chromeo - White Women
Chromeo's White Women is sex on wheels; a funky free ride through hordes of keyboards and beats fueled by a cheeky attitude that strives to be sultry with a wink over creepy with a leer. From the first bouncy guitars and stabbing strings of "Jealous (I Ain't With It)" we're pulled into a non-stop disco party and the mirror ball is making everyone in the room look sexy as hell. This is Hall & Oates sundae for a new millennium, mixing soul with electropop and drizzling healthy streams of shiny soul over the whole thing. Oh yeah, and on top of it, the duo are incredibly gifted and sophisticated songwriters, which means there's an intelligence supporting the whole artsy party vibe that keeps the silliness from ever feeling downright goofy, and keeping the come-ons eagerly playful instead of uncomfortably lewd.

2015_01_grmln.jpg GRMLN - Soon Away
This is summer beach-y music from an alternate dimension where volume is always in the red and the world shimmers and shifts in and out of focus around you, like subtly jumping filmstrips projected 360 degrees.

It's also power-pop that feels desperate, as if its running for its life, ahead of a rushing avalanche of distortion that threatens to constantly overtake the melody. But these songs always stay just a few split hairs, less than a millimeter's breadth, from disaster, resulting in music that bursts with life, thrums with energy, and makes you just want to rip all your clothes off and run around shouting at the sun with happiness so overwhelming it also almost makes you wanna cry.

2015_01_menzingers.jpg The Menzingers - Rented World
Punk-pop? Power-pop? Punk-power-pop? All of those descriptors apply to the latest from the Menzingers. But while the sounds are young and full of vigor, lyrically the album sees the group growing up and indulging in a little self reflection. The more mature themes meld well with the inventive songwriting, taking full advantage of layering power chords over more intricate leads while still driving straight into the onrush of killer pop versus and big ol' stadium choruses. In other bands' hands a refrain like "I Don't Wanna Be An Asshole Anymore" would come across as either snotty or whiny, but when floated above The Menzingers' songwriting it feel like a genuine promise. It doesn't hurt that this album has one of my personal favorite snags of the year, the heart soaring grandiosity of "Bad Things." Pump your fist like a grown-up!

2015_01_the_by_gods.jpg The By Gods - I Don't Care Who Believes Me...
This Nashville duo released the true sleeper album of the year, at least as far as my personal experiences with music went. It came out of the blue, unattached to any real reason other than a blind shot in the dark it was coming out and people might write about it. I put it on and listened to it, and a few hours later realized I had been playing the album over and over without even realizing I was doing so. The music is deceptively simple and straightforward—these are big, catchy, hooky tunes—with just enough interplay between George Pauley's barre chords and plucky little leads to spice things up, along with deft drumming from Tye Hammonds that hits hard but also swings in and out of playful fills that keep every space feeling like it has a distinct purpose to fulfill. And there's something really ingratiating about Pauley's vocals, raspy yet insistent and tinged by a yearning quality that sucks you even further into being full vested into every single song.

2015_01_hushdrops.jpg Hushdrops - Tomorrow
If you're going to spend ten years recording between albums the end result had better live up to the wait. So The Hushdrops swung for the fences, delivering a double album that exceeded expectations. It's a dense piece of music, with powerful instrumentation flowing around inventive melodies and vocal deliveries. It's The Who had they ever truly been able to graft their live show power onto their more psychedelic recorded compositions. And since the band is comprised of three songwriters of stunning talent, all working at what appears to be the height of their powers, what we get is one hours and twenty minutes of sonic bliss. It's also worth noting that while there are plenty of stand out songs on this double LP, the thing demands to be listened to as a whole, taking you on an amazing journey every single time.

Don't forget to check out some of our staff favorite local musical moments and albums of 2014 here, as well.