It’s that time of year again, when newsfeeds and websites run rampant with the original “listicle,” the top ten list. This will be no exception, with a listing of my favorite albums of the past year in descending numerical, ascending rank order. My metrics are completely subjective but I am heavily influenced by sheer rotation, that is, how many times I can think back over the year and vividly remember listening to these albums.
The first of a couple metal albums on this list, but the only death metal album, and honestly the only death metal album that I’ve gravitated towards in years. After going through a death phase in the early 00’s, the past decade has had me swimming in the waters of black, doom, and occasionally stoner and sludge metal most of the time. So I was quite surprised when I tried this one out and the result wasn’t eye-rolling at overwrought and pretentious technical wankery or genuine embarrassment at insanely horrible vocals (my two most common reactions to tech/death metal these days) but an urge to bang my head and/or thrash. Artificial Brain found a way to convey rage, terror, and misanthropy with death metal in an incredibly engaging way.
As a co-editor for Portland live music coverage for most of 2014, some Portland/regional bands were bound to end up on this list. This debut album has the band making waves in the Portland music scene and is successful and solid enough to provide a base for a wider audience. This collection of earnest, heartfelt, straightforward rock might be a bit front heavy, with songs like “American Drag” and “It Came to Me” leading the charge, but it is eminently listenable.
I’ll admit to jumping on this train super late in the year after a glowing recommendation from Bunk Bar’s Tony Prato in June. As a drummer, the most immediate and impressive piece of craftwork I noticed was the lack of hi-hat driven rock beats, with the choice to propel the majority of the songs with linear snare, bass, and tom beats transforming the short songs into gripping post-punk statements. The final piece to the puzzle are the lyrics, dystopian and inscrutable, but utterly compelling once deciphered. In fact the joy of the first five or so listens might be simply figuring out what is being said while nodding ones head.
Looking back on 2014, one has to admit that politically, things have dilapidated at an alarming rate. Mass shootings, a political war on women’s rights, the systematic murder by and lack of justice for police were all shoved in our faces for multiple months this year. For those feeling the need for political rants to thrash along to, Wasted Years provides an excellent, albeit short, collection of hits, with lines like “You can’t argue with the troops/ Or the cops, in riot suits!” or a song about the promulgation of drone warfare titled “Over Our Heads.” OFF! seemed to lose a little steam with their second album (the S/T out in 2012) but this album is a return to form and a great political punk record.
I told myself I would never get on board the bandwagon of early-00’s alt/indie bands magically re-discovering themselves now that the people who couldn’t afford their albums or go to their shows are 30 years old, employed, and nostalgic. This declaration was thrown out the window for Two, an album that sounds somehow simultaneously like a time capsule back to post-rock Chicago in 2001 and refreshingly new at the same time. Displaying an intricacy and willingness to shift tonality and rhythm into the vaguely jarring while still pulsing forward with emotive rock, this an album that doesn’t sound like anything else released this year.
It seems as though every “best of” list must include at least one crazy good album released by a self-indulgent, ego-maniacal asshole that has prompted a love/hate relationship with fans and media. Pom Pom is this album, a masterwork by master shit-starter Ariel Pink. An album with enough eclecticism for a volume of material which starts out with 8 or so of the best songs Ariel Pink has ever crafted in a row which then takes a turn directly into crazytown with “Dinosaur Carebears” and never looks back, it hasn’t even fully hit its stride, with many of the singles being the weakest but most difficult material. When Pink decides to unleash videos for “White Freckles,” “Four Shadows,” and “Not Enough Violence,” this album will be on the tip of the tongue all the music cognoscenti.
What can be done after an album cements your position in black metal legend the way Marrow of the Spirit did for Agalloch in 2012? The answer provided in 2014 by The Serpent and the Sphere is simply to continue to strive after the powerful forces that inspire all of us. After successfully mining the topics of pagan mysticism and naturalism on previous albums (an exercise that has prompted many critics to label the band “folk metal,” a silly practice), Agalloch look to the darkness of the night sky and the cosmos for lyrical and musical inspiration. The album did leave me personally with some questions, such as the amount of artistic humility it must take for a band as powerful as Agalloch to seek out the musicianship of another artist, in this case Canada’s Musk Ox (Nathanael Larochette) to craft several interludes, including the final track on the album.
Albums released early in the year have a notoriously hard chance to make it onto these kinds of lists, and albums released by “local bands” an even harder chance. Yet here stands Aan’s debut album at a well deserved number 3. Yes, this album really is that good, starting with the tension building opener “Wet and Dripping” and never letting go for the rest of the work, through cynical and driving songs like “I Don’t Need Love” and “Wake Me With a Kiss” and more tender reflections such as “Daylight.” What might be the most arresting aspect of the album is the astute and appropriate production provided by former band member Jeff Bond, with this album singlehandedly establishing his competency as a sound engineer. A criminally underappreciated album outside of the confines of Portland, Amor Ad Nauseum is all that anyone could ask for from a debut album.
It was fitting to note the surprise that accompanied Rolling Stone’s decision to anoint this album as the number one metal album of the year, not because it wasn’t deserved but because Rolling Stone isn’t exactly known for not having their heads up their asses when it comes to underground music. Something to reflect on: in the year 2014, recognizing a band like Yob gives Rolling Stone some credibility, not the other way around. The album is certainly deserving from the opening note, with “In Our Blood” prompting the listener to wake up before pummeling the senses for the next eighteen minutes. While the other tracks (“Nothing to Win” and “Unmask the Spectre”) each carry their own charm, as with Atma, Yob saves the best for last, with closer “Marrow” being one of the most poignant statements of the year, especially in the context of lead singer Mike Scheidt’s personal growth.
While it might be difficult to pick a number one album in some cases, this year White Lung made it ridiculously easy. This was the album I listened to the most, enjoyed the most, told the most people about, and reveled in the most since its mid-year release. The perfect combination of engaging, hook-driven punk music and thought provoking, metaphorical, personal and political lyricism, there simply wasn’t a better way to spend about 20 minutes this year than to listen to Deep Fantasy.