We still haven't quite come to terms with the fact that, for all intents and purposes, summer is over. Granted, the autumnal equinox isn't until September 23rd, but the kids are going back to school and the temperature outside is in free fall. If that wasn't enough, we have one final harbinger of the fall: MAGIC!'s asinine "Rude" has fallen all the way down to no. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100, because as everyone knows, reggae, even cheap Canadian reggae, is for summer only. And it's over. And some people would lead you to believe that all we have to show for it is "Fancy". (We have 20 responses to that.)
"Song of the Summer" may be one of the highest honors we, as a society, can bestow upon a pop song, and we've done has much as we could to put in our two cents, but deep down we are still suckers for the LP, and this summer was full of great ones. We've narrowed it down to 14 that stood out the most. To our surprise, there's no unifying theme to our 14 picks; we have irrepressibly catchy pop albums next to classic throwbacks, heartrending confessionals next to biting commentary, otherworldly otherness next to Ariana Grande. It goes to show that, more than ever, music in 2014 is a free for all.
Without further ado...
Molly Rankin and the rest of Toronto's Alvvays didn't reinvent the wheel with their bright self-titled inaugural go, but this brief collection of songs has quickly become an indispensable summer companion, boasting catchy tunes, slick lyricism and, perhaps most important, a perfectly synced rhythm section.
Ariana Grande: My Everything
"Fancy"’s full-frontal assault might have inundated critics and listeners to concede the title of "Song of the Summer", but after threeconsecutivesmashes, it was soon clear that the title of artist of the summer belonged only to Ariana Grande. Like Jean-Luc Marsh said in his PMA review of Grande's debut album, "My Everything succeeds in its primary objective. This is a pop record, clear and simple. She may have some kinks to work out, but for now Grande can run with the big girls."
Cymbals Eat Guitars: LOSE
LOSE is a deeply personal record for Cymbals Eat Guitars bandleader Joseph D’Agostino, and that undoubtedly is what makes it their best album. Musically, the album is as tightly constructed as their previous two, and just as indebted to the 90s noise rock greats, but it never settles for mimicry and never loses its punch. It actually packs a lot of it, and this time it's paired with better-than-ever lyrics with weight and honesty behind them.
FKA twigs: LP1
In some ways, FKA twigs' spellbinding debut, LP1, is a lot like Kanye West's instantly iconic Yeezus. Both albums take brazen stands on sexuality and neither shies away from its creator's emotional desiderata. Musically, the link has been made explicit; they share experimental hip hop producer Arca. But even without eying the tracklist, it's difficult to miss that both these albums share the distinction of sounding precisely of the moment and like something out of an alternate universe. Neither album is blowing up the radio (though they absolutely should), but its hard to believe that their influence will not be felt among more commercial projects.
In December we called Yeezus the album of the year. 2014 would be an exceptional year for music indeed if another album manages to take the title from LP1.
How to Dress Well: "What Is This Heart?"
Though it was released in the middle of the so-called "PBR&B" backlash, Tom Krell's "What Is This Heart?" is a thoughtful, accomplished work. It's positioned as his pop-crossover album, but it's far too pared down and uncompromising for a pop-crossover album. Instead it feels like an encapsulation of all that Krell has given us so far, just a little cleaner, more brilliant, his words and melodies landing harder and lingering longer.
Like LP1, "What Is This Heart?" doesn't break new ground for r&b, but its confessional nature is a rarity in r&b music. Its unabashed emotionality often verges on corniness, so it feels fitting to end in bromide: If you let it, "What Is This Heart?" will touch your heart in ways few albums will this year.
Royksöpp & Robyn: Do It Again
Though enjoying a decades-long career, Robyn has never been what you'd call prolific. While seeing some success with her 1995 debut, This Is Robyn, it wasn't until 2005's Robyn that the Scandinavian pixie became a hero of the unpopular pop scene and saw critics worshipping at her alter. Then she didn't release another album until 2010 – the still stunning Body Talk. So when, in 2014, she joined Norwegian electropop savants Royksöpp in releasing an ambitious, LP-minded EP, it was something of an event to be enjoyed by a growing, but still-small group of appreciators.
Individually, Robyn and Royksöpp have crafted some of the most compelling dance music of the century, and for a measly 35 minutes we were teased and taunted with the idea that these three might be even better together. But as Peter Tabakis said in his review of the EP, "Do It Again is foremost a marvel of mood and pacing. The trio doles out their riches with utmost care. Sure, Do It Again comes and goes way too quickly. But isn’t that just high praise disguised as complaint?"
La Roux: Trouble In Paradise
Out of all the albums on this list, La Roux's Trouble In Paradise is easily the most seasonably appropriate. It's as though every second of this record is meant to evoke summer and the joy and freedom that come with it. Nearly every melody is memorable and most do a hell of a job burrowing their way into your cranium to the point that resistance is futile. Trouble breaks absolutely no ground here, but it's so fervently catchy and comfortable and fucking pleasant that it's hard to want it to be anything other than what it is.
Lana Del Rey: Ultraviolence
There's just no way that Ultraviolence, or Lana Del Rey for that matter, are meant to be taken at face value. Consider the album's gorgeously strummy "Brooklyn Baby", with shit-stained golden nuggets like "I'm churning out novels like/ Beat poetry on Amphetamines" or "My jazz collection's rare/ I can play most anything". Or "Well, my boyfriend's in a band/ He plays guitar while I sing Lou Reed". Or "Yeah my boyfriend's pretty cool/ But he's not as cool as me". This is as cringe worthy as anything Lil Jon has released all year long, but satire like this is also LDR's bread and butter.
Born To Die leveled its sharp criticism–a lot sharper than probably anyone gave her credit for–against the opulence of the American dream. Ultraviolence similarly explores, with her signature mock materialism and overdrawn patriotism, America's black hole emptiness.
Through a delirious 51 minutes, Lana fucks her way to the top for money, power, glory, only to be mercifully left behind and forgotten by the cruel world, like we knew she would be from the very start. To be sure, Lana Del Rey trades in exaggeration, but as a great Western philosopher once said, life doesn't imitate art, it imitates bad television, and Ultraviolence is The Real World.
Rustie: Green Language
I still remember when I first heard Rustie's 2011 single “Ultra Thizz”. Let me back up: I still remember feeling a little lightheaded after making it through the other side of that drop. Since then, that drop has become a 6.2 billion dollar industry and Rustie has all but abandoned it in favor of, yes, subtlety, detail, and, as our Austin Reed would argue, heart.
Shabazz Palaces: Lese Majesty
Lese Majesty, the second album from Seattle's experimental rap tandem Shabazz Palaces, was the summer's most confounding release, a byzantine jigsaw puzzle for the listener to pore over and admire. Like MF Doom and Madlib's landmark 2004 LP Madvillainy, Shabazz Palaces' MC Palaceer Lazaro and beatsmith Tendai Maraire gave Majesty a long tracklist populated by songs that almost never reach the two-minute mark. These short creative bursts, often tangential in nature, allow Lazaro to get the most out of his unique delivery and opaque lyrical style, and Maraire doesn't miss the opportunity to fill the eighteen tracks with unpredictable, effect laden productions that breakdown and reform themselves from one minute to the next. The result is something dizzying and impenetrable without some tenacity on the listener's part. Those tenacious listeners, however, are in for something special.
Again. Pop music is teenaged Las Vegas singer-songwriter-producer Shamir Bailey’s oyster. His debut EP, Northtown, boasts five songs that sound like the work of the same utterly unique artistic voice without sounding much like one another, and which hearken back to very specific eras of America’s musical past without losing their grip on the here and now.
But the star of the show is Shamir himself, not his compositions. His androgynous, angelic pleat has a rich, sepia-toned graininess to it that belies his youth. Coupled with his unostentatious technical command, Shamir’s voice is the rare and fortunate kind who reference points–all equally extraordinary and unlikely–necessarily tell you more about the effect it has than what it actually sounds like: formidable jazz greats like Holiday and Simone, contemporary art-pop sprites like Björk and Antony Hegarty.
On record, Shamir refuses to be tethered by gender or time period, and consequently the nineteen-year-old’s limited output already feels timeless and singular.
Spoon: They Want My Soul
From our review: Spoon’s eighth LP They Want My Soul arrived over twenty years after its debut recording, the Nefarious EP. The new record warrants a superlative of some kind. But I struggle to find one that couldn’t legitimately apply elsewhere within the band’s impeccable string of releases, starting with 1998’s A Series of Sneaks all the way through 2010’s Transference. I would call it Spoon’s most cohesive album, if it weren’t for 2001’s Girls Can Tell. I would call it Spoon’s most assured album, if it weren’t for 2002’s Kill the Moonlight. I would call it Spoon’s most enjoyable album, if it weren’t for 2005’s Gimme Fiction. I would even call it my favorite Spoon album, if it weren’t for 2007’s Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. So maybe They Want My Soul is Spoon’s most illustrative album, the Spoon-iest of Spoon albums. Need I underscore how astonishing and improbable a feat this is, two decades deep into the group’s career? No? I’ll do it anyway: They Want My Soul is the sort of mid-career album promising young bands should aspire to, and long-established acts will come to resent.
Strand of Oaks: HEAL
Throughout HEAL, Strand of Oaks' Timothy Showalter comes off like a visionary risk-taker with nothing to lose, not to mention like a consummate frontman. Over his unlikely arrangements, his ragged vocals, literary lyrics, and swaggering performance put him in a rarefied class with the likes of Matthew Houck and Josh Tillman. Even there, Showalter has an edge with his combination of deep respect for the American country music tradition and his complete lack of respect for that tradition’s conventional boundaries. The ultimate effect is his concern, so if a rollicking Appalachia-set narrative ballad’s going to hit more powerfully streaked with fluorescent new wave keyboard hooks, so be it. Purists be warned; everyone else, enjoy the show.
The New Pornographers: Brill Bruisers
Arriving in the middle of the final week of summer, it's hard not to imagine that Brill Bruisers’ release wasn't specifically coordinated around the innumerable barbecues and beach trips that were planned over Labor Day weekend. Surely The New Pornographers–or more likely, Matador Records–are aware that their keen take on power-pop is as manicured and elegant as Big Star at their height. I can see the Canadian supergroup standing in a circle, like the Guardians of the Galaxy, deciding that summer 2k14 would be incomplete–nay, a travesty–without the "bo-ba-bo-ba-ba-bo's” and "oohhoo's" of "Brill Bruisers". As silly as that sounds, they're absolutely right. After a summer dominated by "Problem" and "Fancy", it's really nice to close out the season with a classic sound that evokes a time before we even knew what an Iggy Azalea was.