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Best of 2014: EW's music staff picks their personal favorites

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Courtney Barnett
Leslie Kirchoff

EW‘s end of year lists are a group effort, the product of several rounds of nominations, negotiations, arguments, and compromises. While there were a lot of passionate appeals made on behalf of our favorite albums and songs of 2014 when we were assembling our official list, not every one of our jams made the final cut. Presented here are our music staff’s personal favorite albums and songs that were left off.

KYLE ANDERSON, senior writer

Jenny Lewis, The Voyager

The sound associated with California’s Laurel Canyon—a hybrid of breezy beach rock, Youngian storytelling, and paranoid ’70s pathos—is all the rage right now in indie circles, which makes Lewis an OG. She’s been crafting casually heartbreaking pop-rock since her band Rilo Kiley broke nearly a decade ago, and while that band was more about the psychological tug between Lewis and bandmate Blake Sennett, her solo career has been more about drilling deep within her own soul. What a lovely one she has: The Voyager, her third solo album, is both her most musically rich and her most cinematically real. Over the course of 10 songs (most of which were produced by Ryan Adams, save for a contribution from Beck), Lewis casually throws shade (“She’s Not Me”), spins a breathless tale about her restless youth in Paris (“Late Bloomer”), and ruminates on her biological clock (“Just One of the Guys”). No matter the tone, Lewis’ charisma keeps everything warm, especially on the weepy title track. The Voyager is remarkable because it is both sad and sunshiny. Few artists can nail that remarkable balance, and Lewis tosses it as casually as she does her ginger locks.

Pallbearer, “The Ghost I Used To Be”

It’s odd to call a 10-minute doom-metal dirge my favorite “single” of the year with plenty of awesome pop tunes available (shout out to “Problem”), but no individual song bounced around my skull more in 2014. Buoyed by a thick Kubrickian stillness and frontman Brett Campbell’s gorgeous specter of a voice, “The Ghost I Used To Be” is both chest-crushingly heavy and shockingly pretty, with a central lyrical theme that suggests these four dudes from Little Rock, Arkansas, are as interested in resurrection as they are with oblivion.

LEAH GREENBLATT, senior editor

These may count as 2013 releases depending what side of the international dateline you live on, but I loved two imports this year that have almost nothing in common: Courtney Barnett’s A Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas and Burial’s Rival Dealer. Barnett could be the young Australian lady-baby of Jonathan Richman and Stephen Malkmus; she has the same sort of talky delivery and slack-rock hooks that should have made her at least as indie-famous as Mac DeMarco, War on Drugs et al.

Burial is a London electronic producer who was basically a human question mark; a lot of people thought he was actually Aphex Twin working under a pseudonym until he revealed his identity earlier this year. Rival Dealer is strange and sad and glitchy and beautiful, and to me it sounds like the music that swans (not Swans) would make if they had opposable thumbs and were into, like, Bergman films and German techno.

I also really enjoyed Alice Boman’s EP II, because I have an annual quota for pretty Swedish snowflakes, and Canada’s Ought, who released Once More With Feeling… this fall, is one of the few bands who can slavishly knock off the Talking Heads without just making me just want to go listen to More Songs About Buildings and Food again instead.

In singles, I also loved Vic Mensa’s “Down on My Luck,” Kindness’ “I’ll Be Back” and Tobias Jesso Jr.’s “Hollywood,” and fell into a real rabbit hole with Nick Jonas’ “Jealous” for a while. I still listen to Beyoncé’s “Partition” and “Yoncé” pretty much weekly, and still totally don’t get why people love Perfect Pussy so much.

MILES RAYMER, music news editor, EW.com

Arca, Xen

Venezuelan producer Alejandro Ghersi, better known as Arca, had a shadowy hand in guiding the sound of pop in 2013, lending his expertise in creating ominously bass-heavy electronic textures to Kanye’s Yeezus and FKA Twigs’ EP2, two recordings that reverberated throughout this year and should continue to do so well into the next. For his debut album, the 24-year-old Arca takes a considerably different approach than he did on his previous EPs and last year’s &&&&& mixtape. The songs are still full of alien textures, still deliciously punishing with the low end, and still stylistically slippery enough to defy any attempt to slot them in a particular genre, but there’s a lightness that his earlier work lacked. Credit that to the influence of his alter ego Xen, “this very sassy, confident, very feminine side of him,” as his creative partner Jesse Kanda recently described it in an intimate Fader cover story. Like Aphex Twin and Brian Eno, he produces technically challenging, abstract electronics resonate as much in the listener’s heart as in their head.

Popcaan, “Everything Nice”

Despite the number of dancehall tracks that have made the top 40 over the years, America’s never been exactly comfortable with the genre, so unfortunately Jamaican phenomenon Popcaan’s debut LP, Where We Come From (released on the impeccably curated Brooklyn label Mixpak), was pretty much only heard here by pre-existing dancehall aficionados and not the general pop audience it deserved. The whole album’s brilliant, but by far its finest moment is “Everything Nice,” where Popcaan uses a gently percolating slow-motion beat by producer Dubbel Dutch to deliver an uplifting sermon that’s dead-ass sincere and somehow not even a tiny bit corny. Where We Come From hasn’t left my phone since I put it on there back in the spring, and over the year I’ve gone to “Everything Nice” dozens of times, especially during moments where I’ve found myself stressed out, overwhelmed, or just flat-out depressed and in need of a hand, which Popcaan’s come through with every time.

MOLLY SIMMS, staff editor, music

Future Islands, Singles

The buzz surrounding this synth-obsessed Baltimore trio became deafening in March, when they knocked Letterman’s gray socks off with a late-night performance of their first single, “Seasons (Waiting on You).” Luckily, the band has more up its sleeve than frontman Samuel T. Herring’s “funky dad at his daughter’s bat mitzvah” dance moves. Singles, their fourth LP, plays like the soundtrack to an ’80s cop movie: You can imagine the protagonist peeling out in his Mazda while blasting these crisp new wave tunes. Herring’s ultra-dramatic, ragged vocals are the perfect counterpoint to the band’s pared-down pop, which feels as retro-hip as a keytar. But for all their indie-rock bona fides, the coolest thing about Future Islands is their propensity for dorky tenderness. The lyrics to “Sun in the Morning” would feel right at home on a James Taylor album: “She feeds me daily soul / she talks right to my soul.” Nostalgic, cutting edge, and unabashedly emo, this is the record music nerds didn’t know they wanted, but needed all along.

Frankie Cosmos, “Art School”

Who knew that a sparse, two-minute track about teenage depression could be so memorable or so sweetly heartbreaking? Frankie Cosmos’ whole album, Zentropy—which clocks in at a whopping 17 minutes—is full of gorgeous, bummed-out ditties (sample lyric: “I’m the kind of girl buses splash with rain”), but this song in particular had me hitting repeat all year. Call it mope-core, or just call it what it is: flawless.

KYLE RYAN, editor, EW.com

The Hotelier, Home, Like Noplace is There

The best second-wave emo album of 1996 came out in 2014, under the new moniker of the band formerly known as The Hotel Year. Frontman Christian Holden’s lyrics are almost unbearably sad, but he writes in such a mindful, self-effacing way that they never sound like he’s wallowing for effect. It helps that the songs are genuinely cathartic, like the slow simmer of opener “An Introduction to the Album,” which builds for three and a half minutes carried only by Holden’s vocals and guitar until it explodes into a rollicking finale. The Hotelier’s first album, 2011’s It Never Goes Out, showed promise but was a fairly straightforward emo-punk affair. On Home, Like Noplace is There, the band makes the kind of artistic leap it usually takes a few albums to accomplish. The songs have more texture and more surprising moments, and pulse with an intensity that’s as striking as their hooks are catchy. I listened to this album obsessively all year, and I don’t think that will end any time soon.

White Lung, “Down It Goes”

My favorite song of the year is The Hotelier’s “Your Deep Rest,” but having gushed so much about that band already, I’ll talk about another one of my favorites from this year. I don’t know how much it qualifies as a “single” so much as a track I love. (But, hey, I’m with Leah on that Nick Jonas song, for what it’s worth.) White Lung’s Deep Fantasy is the ferocious career peak of the Canadian punk band, and no song showed its teeth more than “Down It Goes.”

ERIC RENNER BROWN, editorial intern

Spoon, They Want My Soul

Many touted They Want My Soul as little more than another notch on the belt of Austin’s most consistent indie band. Toss that caveat out the window of a rainy taxi. Like the burst of light on its cover, Spoon’s eighth studio album is a brilliant flash of rock gems. True: They Want My Soul isn’t the quantum leap St. Vincent or Run the Jewels gave us in 2014. Instead, it’s just a record brimming with stellar tunes. Crunchy guitars and Britt Daniel’s underrated voice propel the quintessentially Spoon singles “Do You” and “Rent I Pay,” while ragtag jams like “Knock Knock Knock” and the title track improve with every listen. Then there’s emotional centerpiece “Inside Out,” a transcendent ballad that proves these middle-aged dudes can still deal a gut punch. They want your soul, Britt—don’t give it to them.

Real Estate, “Talking Backwards”

Real Estate’s sunny guitars and dreamy vocals belie emotional poignance. Take “Talking Backwards,” the poppy, brief, and slyly heavy single off the band’s third record, Atlas. Superficially charming, the track straddles roll-with-it optimism and tormented nostalgia as it analyzes a rocky long-distance relationship. Like Real Estate’s best songs, “Talking Backwards” fixates on how green the grass is, and whether it’s really any greener on the other side. “I might as well be talking backwards / Am I making any sense to you?” Martin Courtney sings. Juxtaposed with crystal-clear guitars, his question can sound tragic, hopeful, or a little bit of both.

RAY RAHMAN, staff writer

Courtney Barnett, The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas

There are a lot of things I want to say about Courtney Barnett, largely because I feel like she’s already said so many things about me. The Australian slacker-poet’s 12-song stunner (released first in Australia before seeing its physical Stateside release this year, so I’m kind of cheating) cuts to the core of what it feels like to be faking it as an adult, and she does it with the disarmingly conversational wit of a great storyteller—something along the lines of Stephen Malkmus, but more straightforward. If that sounds boring, it’s my fault. Listen to her instead: “I got drunk and fell asleep atop the sheets / But luckily I left the heater on / And in my dreams I wrote the best song that I’ve ever written / I can’t remember how it goes.” 

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