I have selfish reason for curating this list every year. Even if nobody reads this article, I get the benefit of a dozen or so people sending me mixtapes featuring their favorite jams this year. I’ll spend the next three months listening to all these albums on random, discovering new favorite bands, re-confirming a few of my prejudices (let’s be honest) and trying to figure out what these songs say about their selectors. I’m in it mostly for the surprises – the left-field acts too far outside my metal safety zone to find on my own or the surprisingly captivating tunes by acts I’d written off or ignored.
This wouldn’t be possible if the tastes of the Unwinnable hive mind weren’t so diverse (and often contrary). Our annual best-of list is more and more becoming a Venn diagram where the circles barely overlap. The few albums we can agree on are a bizarre mix of blasphemous metal, spacey soundtracks, backpacker hip hop and God knows what else. And if you think our top ten is all over the place, wait until you hear the outliers.
I’ve included several stand-out ballots as sidebars and dumped almost everything into one gigantic Spotify Playlist for your continued edification. Starting with the ten best albums of the year, here’s 1,232 songs that say something (not sure what) about 16 of my favorite people. Listen and you might learn something.
[Editor’s Note – all the links below go to individual albums on Spotify. You can listen to the entire unified playlist on Spotify, ideally on random. And, thanks to Rob LeFebvre, you can check it out on Rdio, too!]
– Gus Mastrapa
A shitload of people die on Sun Kil Moon’s Benji: second cousins, uncles, wives, grandmothers, old friends, school children, Norwegians, even serial killers. And, lest you need a happy reminder, living people will someday die, also: your mother, for one, and don’t forget, you, too. You’re older than you’ve ever been, your back is killing you, you have to piss all the time and when you fuck too much you teeter on the verge of a heart attack. So what to do? Try to find some meaning in the mess, or add some to it. Hop a plane back to Ohio with Will Oldham to give and receive hugs. Listen to your dad get hell from his girlfriend over his flirting at Panera Bread. Treasure your loved ones, living and dead, and your history of lovemaking sessions, from your first in kiss to your first muff dive to your favorite BJs and beyond – there’s simply no such thing as TMI in Mark Kozelek’s weird and wacky world of pugilistic poetry. And even though Kozelek lost a lot of goodwill over some questionable beefs with fans and The War on Drugs, Benji is an undeniable modern American masterpiece – one Unwinnable has ranked far too low on this year-end list.
– Matt Marrone
It is rare for a throwback to feel as dangerous as its influences, but Midnight tap two potent sources for their sound – the balls-to-the wall rock of Motorhead and the satanic black metal of Venom. Neither has lost their oomph after all these years. Midnight’s schtick helps. The band wears black hoods when they play and they sing about the depraved kinds of stuff that used to get Tipper Gore in a tizzy. Whether they’re just out to shock or venting the bile we all keep in our guts the dudes from Midnight clearly have steam to blow. You could call this follow up to 2011’s Satanic Royalty is more of the same, but when that amounts to just shy of a dozen ragers with hammering drums, evil riffs and lyrics so wicked that they leave the throat they escape from bloody and raw, then it’s not the homogeneity that concerning. This much Midnight is about all the catharsis society can handle.
– Gus Mastrapa
In the wake of their reunion in 2010, Swans’ may have reached new heights when it comes to brutal, unforgiving and wholly breath-taking 2-hour long albums. But if there’s one thing that frontman Michael Gira hasn’t been able to achieve in the 3-decade long journey of the band is to replicate the sheer intensity of their live performances in studio. Enter To Be Kind, which sees the band pick up the slow-building, repetitive, almost-meditative music from their previous album, The Seer and infuse it with the relentless brutality of their live performances. To Be Kind confronts the listener in every track, challenging their conventions and evading every genre description they may try to fit this into. By substituting the physical vibrations one experiences in their live shows with structured chaos, Gira achieves both his trademark perfectionism in studio and manages to provide the listener with a proper taste of the experience in person.
– Ansh Patel
Greg Cartwright has been one of my musical heroes for almost 20 years. His music seems universally loved…I’d call him a darling of underground critics, if I used such phrases. He has such a stylistic range (the Memphis soul-reach of the Compulsive Gamblers, the garage/punk roar of the Oblivians, solo acoustic, the countrified Parting Gifts, and last but not least, the all over the rock’n’roll map – yet wholly their own – Reigning Sound.)
Reigning Sound’s Shattered was their first album in five years and first release in almost three. Cartwright, based out of Asheville, NC, is backed by New York City’s Jay Vons, and the result is Reigning Sound’s most soulful album yet. While I love the garage fire of Too Much Guitar and the catchy album of the decade Time Bomb High School, Shattered will forever hold a special place in my heart. It dropped during a period of huge change in my personal life (the end of a four year relationship and having to tell my too-nosy family that I’m now un-engaged) and I must have listened to it every night during the month of July.
Cartwright’s songwriting seems to be forever fertile, and he’s at a place in his career where he can tour as needed, instead of the constant punk/indie grind of release-tour-release-tour. Reigning Sound have a new home at the sizable indie Merge Records, and the band deserves every benefit of this. I’m already looking forward to their next record.
– Sal Lucci
Ugliness can be beautiful. If you need proof, just listen to The Satanist, by the Polish blackened death metal band Behemoth. The only problem: to get the full, mind shattering effect, you need to work hard to develop a taste for extreme metal.
This is no small feat. I don’t enjoy most black and death metal, let alone the combination of the two. It took years of prodding and endless recommendations from Gus before I was passingly fluent in the ear-abusing language of the genre. All that work paid off when I listened to The Satanist for the first time. Here was a secret. I passed a mystical initiation. I knew.
Here is your goal for 2015: climb the mountain and join me at its summit. Discover why the horns and blast beats and the accusing growls spat at heaven are worthy of this list. Push your ear beyond what is catchy and simple to find profanity at its most sublime.
– Stu Horvath
5. Ex Hex- Rips
Ex Hex is a power pop trio from Washington D.C. Led by singer/guitarist Mary Timony, the band also features bassist/singer Betsy Wright and drummer Laura Harris. Their name is appropriate because, due to some some special alchemy and magic, they’ve managed to write and release a spectacular album after being together for only one year. All veterans of the music scene, Mary Timony is probably the most well-known, as a member and songwriter of beloved groups like Helium, Wild Flag and Autoclave. The styles of those bands were fairly different from one another, and that trend continues with Ex Hex.
Rips is a joyful pop/garage/punk album that is perfect for driving, when you’re on the move, or about to hit the town for a night out. The vibe of songs like “Radio On” and “How You Got That Girl” evokes the ’70s and ’80s pop perfection of bands like The Cars and Blondie. From start to finish this album has no filler, just a set of tight songs that total a little over 30 minutes, and leave you wanting so much more.
– Michael Edwards
Initially released through an Indiegogo campaign and then through One Way Static records, Wolfcop is the soundtrack that you (and I) have been waiting for. Composed entirely by Saskatchewan psychedelic metal group Shooting Guns, Wolfcop exceeds my expectations on how a soundtrack should sound. Shooting Guns popped onto the US music scene by way of Riding Easy Records last year with a heavier than thou instrumental album entitled Brotherhood of the Ram. I expected Wolfcop to contain similar metal instrumentals but was pleasantly surprised to hear John Carpenter-esque synth tracks as well as one song containing vocals. This album not only shows the musical diversity of the band but melds a classic 80s cult synth score with sonic psych anthems that is topped off with a tongue in cheek country and western number. Don’t get caught on a full moon without this album as your backing track.
– Ken Lucas
LP1’s sparse, breathy vocals indicate the reality that we’re listening in to some deep sexual baggage here, and that’s to say nothing of weird tingle you might feel when the synths kicks in. But unlike so many other women singers known for breathy vocals, FKA Twigs’ musical aesthetic isn’t designed to inspire lust as much as it’s designed to inspire compassion and introspection.
That’s a big deal in 2014. For several years now, we’ve been ramping up the inherent sexuality of the female pop star to the point that healthy sexual introspection seemed near impossible. FKA Twigs, herself a former “Video Girl” knows first-hand the ways popular culture uses and discard people with sexual fantasies and escapades, particularly evidenced in the cavalier way men sing and rap about women (I’m calling you out, Drake – you and your supposedly humble desire for “some head and a comfortable bed,” and you too, Robin Thicke, you “Blurred Lines” douchebag).
LP1 acknowledges the sweeping, varied, precarious truth about the nature of sex in an age when everyone’s on a different page. When we don’t have it, we crave it and obsess over it. When we have it, we lose ourselves in it. When we involuntarily lose the one we had it with, we feel lonely, discarded, helpless and broken. And then we want it more, at almost any cost. Breathe in, close your eyes and take it all in. Maybe this time it will never end.
– Richard Clark
Filmmaker Panos Cosmatos’ Beyond the Black Rainbow was born of a youth spent gazing at 1980s horror and science fiction VHS boxes at the local video store. Sinoia Caves (the alter ego of musician Jeremy Schmidt), drew on the same influences when crafting the soundtrack to Cosmatos’ film.
The film takes place in the 1980s at a New Age research facility, the Arboria Institute. The institute is now run by Dr. Barry Nyle. On the outside, Nyle appears charming but beneath his wig and contacts lays a psychopath. Nyle has been keeping a young woman, Elena, captive beneath the Institute. There, he studies Elena’s developing psychic abilities while Elena tries to learn about her past and escape.
Cosmatos chooses to tell his story visually and avoids expository dialogue. These characters live in the Arboria Institute. Cave’s soundtrack, like the film, is meticulously constructed. The Beyond the Black Rainbow soundtrack is as much a part of the film’s story as its visuals. When I heard Death Waltz was releasing the soundtrack this year, I had a hard time imagining the music without the film.
After giving the soundtrack a listen at Team Unwinnable’s club house, I was pleased to hear that I was wrong. Caves draws on the works of John Carpenter, Goblin, Giorgio Moroder and more to build a haunting, atmospheric audio experience. Just like the film it scores, the soundtrack reaches out as it plays, exploring a larger and more complex sonic soundscape. Give it a listen and creep yourself out.
– Ian Gonzales
In this, the Year of our Lord 2014, a year in which pop culture ate itself, in which gamer culture set itself on fire, in which the United States Government revealed it tortured people for years without yielding any tangible results and will probably get away with it, in which the country very nearly ripped itself apart over the murders of unarmed black men at the hands of the people meant to protect them, a year in which two good friends of mine were diagnosed with cancer and when pretty much nothing good happened for 12 consecutive months:
I now sit at my desk, at a job I’ve hated for 12 years, staring at mounds of paper while my bosses are on vacation, and I shudder as I think about what I’ve been through, what my friends have been through, what the country has been through.
And then, because I have no words of my own, I invoke the words of Killer Mike and El-P: I invite the world to run naked backwards through a field of dicks.
RTJ2 is a revelation of righteous fury, both gleefully profane and powerfully profound. It is a record made by two friends who are both pushing 40 and don’t have to prove anything; they’ve been underground legends for years, and now they’re having the time of their life. It is a record made by two veterans of the industry who do. not. give. a. fuck. The production on this album is shockingly guttural, evil and twisted, a record made by people who know that in a music industry this broken, there’s nothing to be gained by playing it safe.
If you can get through all 39 minutes of this album and still remain complacent – if you can listen to the whole thing and not want to jump up and down and set the world on fire – then you are dead inside and I’m sorry for your loss. For the rest of us: this is a wake-up call, an endlessly wailing klaxon meant to destroy our apathy and stand up and LIVE.
– Jeremy Voss
Imagine that. An album by a Berklee grad that isn’t chockablock with 64th-note guitar solos. And one that Annie Clark used to finally crowbar her way into the mainstream. She’s been crafting quirky and occasionally dark alt-pop since 2007’s Marry Me, but everything seems to have come together for her this year. Even compared to 2011’s Strange Mercy, largely hailed as her masterpiece until 10 months ago, everything seems sharper – the songwriting, production, her angular guitar…The come-hither look she gives on the album cover is less sex symbol and more supremely confident cult leader, and if she’s going to keep sprinkling her songs with Steve Howe-ish guitar runs and doom-laden breakdowns like in “Huey Newton”, she’s going to have no shortage of people rushing to “Bring Me Your Loves”.
– Don Becker
Best Album For Prizing Your Lingering Youth and Fire: Mitski – Bury Me At Makeout Creek
I keep telling people there isn’t a lot that I miss about moving out of the young-people part of Brooklyn, at my age. It was all getting a bit, y’know, sad, all those dark bars and flickering candles, and it’s you and the other people who have nothing in common but don’t want to go home.
There’s a track on this record called “Townie,” and ‘townie’ is kind of a bad word, a classist word that means people who settle no further than the town they were born, presumably because of economic circumstances and a lack of the worldly curiosity privileged people prize. But what about people who more-or-less elect to remain in the orbit of the dimly-flickering familiar, with the drinking buddies whose homes you never visit and the men that don’t text back (what did Brooklyn do to you, my current boyfriend asked when we met and I evaded him by default). What about when someone makes a choice to hang in a place between a practiced cynicism about the present and a terror about the future? Can’t that be romantic? Like, even in a sad way?
“I want a love that falls as fast as a body from a balcony,” sings Mitski Miyawaki defiantly, and suddenly you remember that just a few years ago you were young enough to love that practiced defiance of what was fucking ‘healthy’ and to bundle yourself into gravelly alleys lined with lofts and to shove your body into a crush of bodies and dead eyes and kisses. You remember that you found yourself there.
Miyawaki has a beautiful voice alongside the record’s asthmatic, discordant riffs. It insists against the noise, digging itself out from underneath some asshole’s sofa cushions (there are several arresting, wince-making screams on “Drunk Walk Home,” fittingly). This is a canny kind of party record. One that knows that you should have gone home a long time ago, even as it knows, with a reflective smile, why you did not.
I still go out at my age. Just, y’know, not quite like that. But I still want to put my makeup on to records like this, forever. Draw the eyeliner wing a little longer. Never forget that something dangerous can still happen. That you still look pretty for a little bit longer. This is what I’ll do for New Year’s Eve tomorrow, except I’ll listen to “First Love/Late Spring,” which I picked out specially for you. It’s a song made for living room waltzes with your old friends (“lately I’ve been crying like a tall child”), the grown-up ones. At the key change, imagine that the love of the rest of your life appears at the top of the stairs, and you can climb up and leave it all behind. Probably. You think.
– Leigh Alexander
Best Punk Album About Being a Woman Trapped in a Man’s Body: Against Me! – Transgender Dysphoria Blues
Now identifying as female, lead singer Laura Jane Grace takes us through a lifetime of discomfort over the course of this record. From the social abuse, to the confusion and depression she fought, this moving, heartfelt and ultimately incredible effort was my favorite album of the year and, after MANY subsequent listenings, my favorite entry in the band’s catalog. “Black Me Out,” one of the album’s highlights, was one of those songs that I needed to exist on repeat until every word was firmly engrained into my memory. I love that I live in a world where an album like this exists and is sold in major markets. In a world so often consumed by hatred and people’s inability to accept what is outside of the norm, this album is a success story and a message of hope for the future.
– Erik Weinbrecht
Best Skramz Revival Effort of 2014: Ritual Mess – Vile Art
The first full-length from Ritual Mess came out in September of this year and really all you need to know about this band is that it contains members of Orchid and Ampere. Now, at this point, you probably fall into one of two distinct camps: you either read the name “Orchid” and thought about how cool that legendary East Coast screamo outfit was in the late ’90s, or you read the name “Orchid” and thought about the snooze-fest of a stoner rock band that San Francisco farted out in 2007. If you are in the former camp, you will enjoy Ritual Mess’ excellent album Vile Art. If you are in the latter camp, you are probably an asshole.
– Mitch Bowman
Best Album to Listen to While Planning a Heist, or Most Blatant Example of Heavy Drug Use in Cover Art, or Best Album to Solve Crimes To, or Best Album to Drive Late at Night To: The Afghan Whigs – Do to the Beast
I always felt the Afghan Whigs dressed like international art thieves. Equal parts slick and sleazy. With Do to the Beast, their first album in 16 years, I couldn’t be more pleased. With light misogynistic tones and dark lyrics Afghan Whigs deliver on this R&B meets True Detective soundscape.
The Afghan Whigs make storytelling music similar to Warren Zevon and Nick Cave, with tales of loss and desperation, while always finding the place for the bright hook in the chorus. I have gotten older along with them, and this is the sound I am usually looking for when it comes to music I like when I am alone.
I was able to see them earlier this year in support of the album. Sprinkling their live sets with covers of Drake, Frank Ocean and songs from the soundtrack Jesus Christ Superstar, the sound and vibe did not miss a beat. If you like a little dirty talk in your moody music, this is a listen.
Some of the stand out tracks for me are “Matamoros,” “Lost in the Woods” and “Algiers.”
– Chuck Moran
Best Album For Imagining You Can Do Anything: Fatima – Yellow Memories
Swedish-born Fatima is a soul and R&B singer who piqued appetites with vocals on other people’s tracks – I just kind of heard her EP at my friend’s house and went, “yeah, more of this.” So did a lot of people, apparently: her first solo record was widely anticipated – I learned that by reading this interview with her, where she was asked basically what took her so long. “I had to live,” she laughs. “Can I live?”
She was going to make this fiercely-ambitious album when she damn felt like it, and when I look at her picture on the front of it, with the tight bun and the curly side-bangs, like from one of my very-good-girl posed yearbook photos, I can’t describe it. Her look seems to say, “just watch what I can do.” I fucking love that.
It’s such an ambitious record, too, constantly interrupting the traditional, the earthen and familiar, for weird stuff like the almost-sinister, twangy beeline of “Ridin’ Round Sky High” with Fatima’s inevitable voice, spiraling up toward some kind of deep night where only she knows if there’s a ceiling at all.
The surging brass that opens the record heralds a track called “Do Better.” It makes me wanna do better, you know? To be assured that I deserve the time to put my side-eye and my fey smile and my best fucking work forward when I feel ready and not when other people think I should.
– Leigh Alexander
Best Techno For Introverts: Lee Gamble – Koch
“What you’ve got is a whole, miserable, subculture.” The lady saying this sounds pretty miserable herself. But that’s just a speculation. I don’t know where exactly this lady is coming from, because her voice is a sample. It has been separated from her head. This means her words no longer come from the heart. Instead they’re floating inside the lo-fi haze that bathes Koch like amniotic fluid or television snow.
Koch is also a speculation – on rave and the unity it was meant to bring. It’s dance music that’s been separated from the body. For dancers and dreamers, this sprawling set just has it – the kind of audible thinking-out-loud that made rave records from 1992 to 1997 both irresistible and impossible to reproduce. That’s because they were literally the sound of the future, the sounding out of technology’s potential. A sampler could steal your voice, a sequencer could rearrange your bones, and a pill didn’t break you out of the Matrix, it let everyone inside.
Even though I’m sure it was made on a grid, Koch is somehow unpredictable; it withholds the beats, and then it throws them up; it changes shape like quicksilver and hides its face in alien mist. But now technology is easy to read. It tells you what it’s good for, right there on the label. It’s a kid soloing Skrillex on a guitar, says YouTube. It’s Justin Bieber slowed down 1000 percent. It’s musical thought itemized as ads and apps.
I’m saying that Koch is an embodiment of thought, and also not the kind we usually hear from best-of-year music. It’s not a philosophy and it’s not an expression. It doesn’t claim to know anything, and it isn’t sad or glad about something in particular. It’s more like a mole blindly feeling out the stuff of sound, just below the surface of human experience. In a year where Aphex Twin is the crazy uncle who decided to show up at Christmas, Lee Gamble plays the kid in his room upstairs who wants to get away from the muffled commotion. He still wonders whether it makes sense to join the group, and if we have ever had something in common.
– Ryan Kuo
Gizmos – live reunion shows, Bloomington, IN (June 2014) and Memphis, TN (September 2014)
The Clean – live, Bloomington, IN (August 2014)
The Replacements – live reunion show, Forest Hills, NY (September 2014)
THE REST OF THE NOMINEES
Electric Citizen – Sateen, Aphex Twin – Syro, The Oath – The Oath, Have a Nice Life – The Unnatural World, Jack White – Lazaretto, Sharon Von Etten – Are We There, Adult Jazz – Gist Is, Pink Floyd – The Endless River, Marisa Nadler – July, How to Dress Well – What is This Heart?, Eno / Hyde – High Life, Salem’s Pot – …Lurar Ut Dig På Prärien, John Wesley Disconnect, Kina Granis – Elements, Warpaint – Warpaint, Natural Child – Dancin’ With Wolves, The War on Drugs – Lost in the Dream, Flying Lotus – You’re Dead!, Wolfmother – New Crown, Primus – Primus and the Chocolate Factory, Coldplay – Ghost Stories, U2 – Songs of Innocence, Judas Priest – Redeemer of Souls, Sisyphus – Sisyphus, Perturbator – Dangerous Days, Dave Kerzner – New World, Weezer – Everything Will Be Alright in the End, Alexandre Desplat – Godzilla OST, First Aid Kit – Stay Gold, Off! – Wasted Years, RATKING – So It Goes, French Style Furs – Is Exotic Bait, S. Carey – Range of Light, The Tea Party – The Ocean at the End, Plaid – Reachy Prints, Hurray For the Riff Raff – Small Town Heroes, Oozing Wound – Earth Suck, Angel Olsen – Burn Fire For No Witness, Menzingers – Rented World, Tycho – Awake, Unicycle Loves You – The Dead Age, Michael Jackson – Xscape, Panopticon – Roads to the North, Zammuto – Anchor, Chuck Cirino – Chopping Mall OST, King Dude – Fear, Caribou – Our Love, Lil Debbie – Young Bitch, A Pregnant Light – My Game Doesn’t Have A Name, Badbadnotgood – III, William Tyler – Lost Colony, The Laze – The Phantom of the Opera OST, Royal Blood – s/t, Mogwai – Rave Tapes, Ghostface Killah – 36 Seasons, Deerhoof – La Isla Bonita, Power Glove – Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon OST, Wounded Kings – Consolamentum, Phish – Fuego, Morrissey – World Peace is None of Your Business, Death Vessel – Island Intervals, Lady Gaga & Tony Bennett – Cheek to Cheek, King Buzzo – This Machine Kills Artists, The Hotelier – Home, Like Noplace There Is, Real Estate – Atlas, Tobacco – Ultima II Massage, Bloody Hammers – Under Satan’s Sun, The Grates – Dream Team, The New Basement Tapes – Lost on the River, Future Islands – Singles, Agalloch – The Serpent and the Sphere, Frameworks – Loom, Vales – Wilt and Rise