Music for a Turbulent World: Top Ten Albums of the Year

2014, like many of the past few years, found me going through a number of […]

Carl L. / 12.31.14

2014, like many of the past few years, found me going through a number of transitions: moving to a new state, making new friends, starting at a new school, etc. As usual, music kept me company on long car rides and helped me persist through the emotional up and downs of starting over again. Alongside these transitions, a number of people in my life had loved ones, young and old, pass away this year, a strong reminder that death, sin, and sadness are yet to be vanquished. Finally, on a national level, the inner turmoil of America bubbled up again this year in truly tragic and heart-wrenching ways, leaving many musical artists with no choice but to speak out. Unsurprisingly, in the light of these events, the music I connected with most this year tended to overflow with emotion—fear, anger, depression, love—rather than attempt to suppress it through slick instrumentation or technical polish. This year, more so than in recent memory, I was confronted by the raw intensity of life, and often had to turn to music to find a measure of grace in this turbulent world.

10) Hell Can Wait-Vince Staples

Vince Staples’ major label debut, Hell Can Wait, may only be an EP, but it hits with a force that many full-length releases fail to achieve. Beginning with “Fire” and its chilling refrain (“I’m probably finna go to hell anyway”), Staples blasts through these seven, sparsely produced tracks with a fury and paranoia largely unmatched this year in hip-hop. It may seem odd that I am recommending an album that starts with such a bleak religious outlook, but the rest of Hell Can Wait expounds upon why Staples feels this way. Violence, drug-dealing, and racism run rampant throughout the rest of the album, giving us insight into the difficult realities many young black males must face on an everyday basis. Over booming bass, “Blue Suede” graphically describes some of these realities, but we find out, in the outro, that all Staples “wanted was them Jordans with the blue suede in ‘em.” In other words, he just wants to be a normal teenager, but his circumstances don’t allow that—a powerful message, any way you look at it. Hell Can Wait allows me a glimpse into situations that I can’t comprehend, offering me a chance to empathize with someone whose life appears to be devoid of hope.

Explicit lyrics below: [youtube=]

9) Get Hurt-The Gaslight Anthem

While compiling this list, I re-listened to Get Hurt and was struck by its power. By comparing it to Handwritten (still a superior album) earlier in the year, I failed to appreciate Get Hurt on its own merits as a well-crafted, emotive rock album. In-your-face rockers like “Helter Skeleton” and “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” provide the musical spark you expect from Gaslight, while poignant ballads like “Underneath the Ground” and “Get Hurt” serve as the emotional backbone of the album. Like most Gaslight Anthem albums, Get Hurt grows on you—previously subtle hooks and lyrics can suddenly explode into epiphany. Once I internalized the lyrics of “Stray Paper,” its straightforward rock vibe transformed into a devastating commentary on nostalgia and young love. When the musical bravado of “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” dissipates into the lyrically somber “Red Violins,” it becomes clear that even the toughest rock’n’roll façade cannot cover up the ghosts within us. Like all good albums, Get Hurt rewards repeated listens, filled with insight underneath its polished exterior.


8) Home, Like Noplace Is There-The Hotelier

The emotional catharsis of Home, Like Noplace Is There readily comes to the surface through the jagged guitars and screams of its post-hardcore soundscape, but unless you listen carefully to the lyrics, you might miss the raw, gaping wound at the core of The Hotelier’s debut album. Through its running-time, Home, Like Noplace Is There traces the emotional trauma of the narrator coping with a friend’s suicide. Amid the often poetic lyrics, the music shifts to mimic different stages of grief, expressed best on “Among the Wildflowers,” a song that transforms from clean guitar lines and vocals into a roaring bridge, before concluding with a section reminiscent of Explosions in the Sky. The Hotelier deeply explores these issues, not shying away from the inner turmoil that depression and mental illness unleashes upon friends, family, and, especially, those going through hard times. The album ends with this message engraved on the deceased’s headstone: “Tell me again that it’s all in my head.” Musically and lyrically, Home, Like Noplace Is There urges us to confront the reality of those emotionally struggling and reach out to them in compassion and love, not with flippant platitudes.

For the moment Joey alluded to in his year-end review, I present this video. [youtube=]

7) LOSE-Cymbals Eat Guitars

LOSE, like The Hotelier’s album, brings stories of depression and malaise to life, as lush musical backgrounds meet ponderous lyrics about death, drugs, and violence. In many ways, Cymbals Eat Guitars remind me of an indier version of The Hold Steady, content to deal with the same dark realities of life. The music on LOSE is stellar, ranging from the eight-minute freak-out of “Laramie” to the bittersweet piano of “Child Bride,” perfect musical complements to the lyrical tales. The album routinely covers neurotic lyrics with beautiful music, creating a pervasive sense of irony that I’m not quite sure how to take. Most importantly, the lyrics and music feel authentic on LOSE—the music feels lived-in and the lyrics true to experience. How often do we do the same thing, covering up our indelicacies and baser tendencies with our equivalent of “beautiful music”? LOSE suggests it is far more profitable to use that beauty in order to exorcise, rather than hide, our inner demons.


6) The Water[s]-Mick Jenkins

From the beginning of Mick Jenkins’ mixtape, The Water[s], we know that things are not right in the world. In a Frank Ocean-esque intro, album opener “Shipwrecked” accurately describes our condition: “Pray God accepts me, I know I’m wrong, but we’ve been shipwrecked since we were born.” Over the course of the mixtape, Jenkins deftly spits about contemporary issues, always bringing our attention back to water, symbolic of healing and rebirth. Superbly produced, The Water[s] simmers rather than boils, deeply inflected by jazz and R&B. It doesn’t sound like any other hip-hop album I heard this year, and its slower pace suits Jenkins’ contemplative lyrics. Lead single, “Martyrs,” devastates with a sample of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” using the sample’s allusion to lynching to connect that atrocity to dangerous mindsets held by youth walking the streets of Chicago. Seemingly a direct response to Kanye’s use of the sample last year in “Blood on the Leaves,” “Martyrs,” like the rest of the mixtape, hits with refreshing honesty, not only diagnosing the problem, but also offering some hope amid the darkness.

Explicit lyrics below: [youtube=]

5) Songs of Innocence-U2

Given my fandom of U2, it’s shocking that it took me an entire day to realize that the Irish band had just dropped a surprise album into everyone’s iTunes. I, of course, was overjoyed to get the new album from one of my favorite bands for free, but many curmudgeons saw this as just another sign of Bono’s egomania. Clearly, those individuals did not listen to Songs of Innocence, an album overflowing with emotion and, dare I say it, humility. “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone),” one of the best songs on the album, lays out the basis for this humility in its stirring bridge: “I woke up at the moment the miracle occurred, I get so many things I don’t deserve.” This miracle of grace can be traced throughout the album, whether it’s in Bono’s tender memorial to his mother on “Iris (Hold Me Close)” or his memories of youthful friendship on “Cedarwood Road.” Musically, Songs of Innocence sounds energized, especially after No Line of the Horizon, and even the slower tracks burn with intensity, most notably the album closer, “The Troubles.” String-soaked and featuring the female vocals of Lykke Li, “The Troubles” shimmers with beauty, returning to the theme of humility: “You think it’s easier to know your own tricks. Well, it’s the hardest thing you’ll ever do.” We may never be able to comprehend all our own tricks and troubles, but the good news is that all of us, not just Bono, get so many things we don’t deserve…including a free U2 album.


4) Lighght-Kishi Bashi

To properly describe Lighght (that’s not a typo), I will briefly give myself over to music-critic language—this album is nothing short of a chamber-pop extravaganza. Meticulously crafted and weird, Lighght feels like what would happen if Wes Anderson decided to break into the music scene.  Lighght is an eclectic, thrilling album that I have heard surprisingly little about this year. The catchiest song on the record is probably “The Ballad of Mr. Steak,” a song that marries orchestral arrangements with a downright funky bass line and disco-esque falsetto to tell the tale of a steak who falls in love. Lighght does not merely rely on an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink aesthetic, but Kishi Bashi also creates great simple songs, as evidenced by the tender, laid-back acoustic ballad “Q&A.” The album seems unencumbered by structure, joyfully playing with verse-chorus dynamics, never afraid to experiment. Above all else, Lighght made me feel like a kid again, full of joy and wonder, offering a necessary antidote to the constant cynicism around and inside me.


3) Bazan Monthly, Vol. 1­-David Bazan

On Bazan Monthly, David Bazan sounds rejuvenated, turning out some of his best music since 2010’s Curse Your Branches. Released over a period of five months, these ten songs bear the imprint of a deliberate, measured approach to song-writing that gives them a musical weight equal to Bazan’s gravelly, weather-worn voice. In typical Bazan fashion, his lyrics do not deviate from exploring the deep, dark places within us and our culture, refusing to sugarcoat reality. It’s remarkable that, at this stage in his career, his lyrics still resound with as much emotional force as they did on albums like Control and Achilles Heel. Every song on Bazan Monthly has the capacity to drop to your knees, emotionally speaking. There’s the usual incisive commentary on Christianity on “Nobody’s Perfect” and “Ill at Ease,” but these songs are balanced out by tender, beautiful tracks like “With You” and “Trouble with Boys. A collection of excellent songs from one of my favorite artists, Bazan Monthly was a constant companion this past semester. More good news for Bazan fans: Bazan Monthly, Vol. 2 is slated to begin in January.


2) Teeth Dreams-The Hold Steady

Although it may sound hyperbolic, Teeth Dreams has been the soundtrack to my life this year. I’ve lost count of how many times I listened to the album driving down the highway, belting out the lyrics to “I Hope This Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You” and “Spinners.” Back in April, a friend and I saw the band put on an incredible show in Rhode Island, and the material from Teeth Dreams was even more electric live. After 2011’s mediocre effort, Heaven is Whenever, I was hoping that the band hadn’t left their best days behind them. Teeth Dreams puts that question to bed, showcasing a band that has re-discovered their rock’n’roll swagger. Craig Finn’s lyrics, as usual, have a way of describing reality in all its sordid glory, turning stories of sinners into tales of saints. No song is wasted, as both the burners and the ballads connect on Teeth Dreams, perhaps none more so than the album’s epic finale, “Oaks.” Almost nine minutes long, “Oaks” ebbs and flows, transforming despair into hope, something the Hold Steady have been doing their entire career. Teeth Dreams marks the triumphant return of one of America’s greatest rock bands.


1) Run the Jewels 2-Run the Jewels

If this was any other year, Teeth Dreams would have beat out Run the Jewels 2 for my album of the year. As I mentioned in my introduction this year has been tragic in numerous ways, and RTJ2 captures the emotions associated with tragedy—fear, anger, sadness—and turns them into a no-holds-barred hip-hop catharsis. Equally important, RTJ2 sounds good doing so, as the duo of El-P and Killer Mike erupt on every track, matching El-P’s high powered, fractured beats with their energetic deliveries and scathing lyrics (listener discretion strongly advised). Furthermore, RTJ2 marks a distinct step forward from the group’s debut album last year, Run the Jewels, an album designed more to entertain than provoke. To be sure, RTJ2 has its share of absurdly comic lyrics, but tracks like “Early” and “Crown” provide pockets of poignancy amid the chaos. “Early,” in particular, is a deeply haunting song, as Killer Mike describes a police stop gone awry in a verse that could have been ripped from this year’s headlines. The night of the Ferguson grand jury decision, Run the Jewels played a show, and Killer Mike started it off by delivering an impassioned speech about the events. As he was discussing race and the potential for people to value one skin color over another, he turned to El-P and pointed, saying, “We’re friends and nothing is going to de-value that.” In the embrace of friendship, empathy becomes possible, leading to the ability to truly identify and value another person. And friendship, an instance of unity and grace in a broken world, makes change possible—nothing or no-one should ever devalue that.