Brian Burlage: The Best Albums of 2014 (so far)

By Brian Burlage, Daily Arts Writer
Published July 14, 2014

This point in the calendar year always finds us in a state of dichotic emotion. In one arena, we celebrate the Fourth of July and its nationalistic sprawl with fervent (if not well-deserved) debauchery. In the other arena, we mourn the stubborn vaulting of summer away from our grasp. As these two ceremonies-of-sorts collide, sentiment rises, retrospection of the first half of the year ensues, and high hopes for the remaining half begin to take shape. In this sense, it seems entirely appropriate to take a closer look at some of 2014’s best music releases thus far:

Honorable Mentions:

10) Isaiah Rashad – Cilvia Demo

9) Wussy – Attica!

8) Parquet Courts – Sunbathing Animal

7) Braid – No Coast

6) How to Dress Well – What Is This Heart?

The Top 5:

5) St. Vincent – St. Vincent

Annie Clark rocks. Her fearless, spirited songwriting rocks. Her multifarious sonic innovations rock. She’s a femme fatale. A connoisseur. A firebrand. She pours the entirety of her not-so-mortal soul into St. Vincent, and for 40 minutes she owns the ground we walk on.

4) The Hotelier – Home, Like NoPlace Is There

“Oooopeeeen theeee cuurtain,” Hotelier frontman Christian Holden demands in the first line of the first song on Home, and right away the album becomes their grail. The track, “An Introduction to the Album,” might very well be the year’s most operatic and moving one yet – not because of its drama, but because it invites us to take part in the great performance. Holden’s adherence to a single melody simply blows its weight out of proportion, making the whole song eerily repetitive and remarkably enticing in its steadfast bewitchment. About a third of the way into the song, Holden’s lone voice is lifted up by the band’s joining chorus, and suddenly he’s not alone. As he sings openly about his mental torments – building his fury more and more – the band’s quiet back-play surges into symphonic grandeur, and the whole track erupts. And just before the tension snaps, after Holden and his band have followed it to the very end of its string, and before the whole movement tumbles out of balance, the track ends. The album begins.

If an alchemist were to blend only the most mature and emotionally packed music of Yellowcard, Blink-182 and a score of other bands we all listened to in 2005, he would produce Home, Like NoPlace Is There. If the Japandroids had decided to create Reality-Check Rock instead of Celebration Rock, this is what that album would have sounded like. If the Clash had traded their political/musically omnivorous punk in for emo-punk, they would’ve written songs something like the ones on Home. The album draws on the tradition of so many different kinds of punk from so many different eras, and to think: the result is a real and sweeping tribute to the present moment. Holden reflects: “And with your nature reversed and/Our home as our cage/You caved and you asked/‘Is this coming of age?’”

I don’t know if it is. But it sure sounds like it.

3) Real Estate – Atlas

Like their 80s predecessors, The Feelies, Real Estate wants to reinvent the value of clean production. With Atlas, Real Estate has catapulted guitar-driven songwriting into sudden reemergence, especially as indie rock has slowly drifted farther and farther away from the one-two punch power of the electric guitar in recent years. Martin Courtney and Matt Mondanile demonstrate near-telekinetic capability in this regard. Their silent co-play is the album’s musical cornerstone, and they utilize the synchronicity of their guitar dialogue to construct songs that equalize lead and rhythm. It’s like sitting in a theater and watching two plays unfold on the same stage – each one fully aware of the other; one reaching its denouement while the other reaches its climax.

Atlas also plays into the tradition of suburban power albums, like R.E.M.’s Murmur or Marshall Crenshaw’s Field Day. One of the many admirable subtleties of the album is the way it casually weaves geography into the song narratives. Real Estate understands that suburban life coincides pretty well with spatial proximity, landscape and ecosystem. Almost every track references some geographic feature: horizons, neighborhoods, hills, skies, street corners. Atlas pieces together this massive, nature-attuned reality and yet, in revealing its singularities, it transports us directly into the heart of it all. The effect is dizzying. And here, Real Estate merely expounds on our disorientation: they sprawl sonically as much as they narrow in lyrically, establishing a paradoxical zoom-in, zoom-out limbo.

As with any album that showcases such rich texture and layered sound, the detail of some songs – “Crime” and “Horizon” – can sometimes overshadow the understated simplicity of others. A perfect example of this on Atlas emerges with the unsung, quiet-kid-in-the-corner instrumental track “April’s Song”. Real Estate creates a beautiful diversion from the busy synchronicity present throughout the rest of the album. “April’s Song” unfurls its mass with deliberation, as Courtney and Mondanile exchange scale-trekking riffs over an easygoing beat. And as the tunneling progression melts into a sequence of flux, you get the strange sense that as big as the world may be, the places you inhabit and the landscapes you observe are each entirely your own.

2) The War on Drugs – Lost in the Dream

Adam Granduciel has always had an affinity for ambience. Not the kind of ambience that’s been branded and trademarked by genre-masters like Boards of Canada, but the kind of ambience in a Bruce Springsteen ballad or a Yo La Tengo minuet, a hypnotizing litany of thoughts and daydreams that fizzle into form and then evaporate just as smoothly. Granduciel uses ambience as a way to make his towering sadness more accessible. After suffering severe heartbreak, prolonged studio obstinacy and paranoia, Granduciel used his work on Lost in the Dream to channel his unholy emotional tempest. By masterfully tuning his anxiety to lower frequencies, he’s attempting to reach both alienated and elated souls alike.

These fuzzy, anthemic tracks exist more as guiding hymns than they do as products of desperation. “Well the comedown here was easy/Like the arrival of a new day,” Granduciel sings on “Under Pressure”, the album’s 9-minute opener. A hefty, swaggering beat supports his freewheeling string plucking and, lo and behold, Granduciel and The War on Drugs sound pretty damn confident with what they’re doing. From the first drum spatter of “Under Pressure” to the last high-pitched whisper of “In Reverse,” Lost in the Dream is lifted by Granduciel’s swelling triumph over pain, and the whole effort becomes equal parts inspiring and revealing. “So if you look, you’ll find yourself/You’re not the demon in the dark/That you and I, yeah we’d been through that,” Granduciel sings on “Burning”. And he finally learns that if his suffering has taught him anything at all, it’s that he’s not a villain, but a hero.

1) Sun Kil Moon – Benji

In the world that Mark Kozelek creates with Benji, no moment is safe from disaster. No human is safe from death. In fact, in each of the 11 song-stories on the album, someone dies – childhood friends, uncles, second cousins, grandmothers, serial killers – and if no one specifically dies, Kozelek sings about the thought of someone dying. And yet, in singing so much about death in all 11 tracks, the moments in between are given so much life. In the opener “Carissa” Kozelek sings about his second cousin, who transitioned from a “lovely child” to “fifteen and pregnant and running wild” in the matter of a few years. She dies in an aerosol-can explosion. As it turns out, so did Kozelek’s uncle, which he sings about in “Truck Driver.” How could anything possibly explain such an incredible coincidence – real or fictitious? Well, nothing really can. And on Benji, Kozelek explores the lives and deaths of all types of characters not to quantify or categorize them, but to simply appreciate them. “She was my second cousin, I didn’t know her well at all but it don’t mean that/I wasn’t meant to find some poetry to make some sense of this, to find a deeper meaning,” Kozelek sings about Carissa. He isn’t assigning meaning or significance. He’s finding them.

Benji also addresses the importance of integrity and the role it plays in Kozelek’s life. The sublime, 10-and-a-half-minute track “I Watched the Film The Song Remains the Same” reveals that Kozelek was prone to bouts of melancholia as a young kid, and that he still suffers from many of the same feelings today. He tells us that on an elementary school playground, “I once got baited and had to clock some undeserving boy” and that “When I walked away the kids were cheering/And though I grinned, deep inside I was hurting”. He then apologizes to that “poor kid” because the incident has been eating at him for years – Kozelek is now 47 years old. Similarly, on “Micheline” we learn about his friend Brett who, for being a professional musician, played bar chords pretty awkwardly. When he dies suddenly of an aneurysm, Kozelek wants to send a condolence letter to Brett’s parents even though he’s on tour in Sweden, and from his little train meandering through the mountains, he “looked out at the snow feeling somewhere between happy and sad”.

All of this information covers only a tenth of a percent of the material on this, Mark Kozelek’s masterpiece. After all, Benji is a seemingly endless compendium of events, coincidences, memories, musings, dreams, apologies, prayers, praises, and stories that are somehow both unique to Kozelek and meaningful to anyone. The album’s subtle instrumentation amplifies the nuances of the songs, and each arrangement is carefully crafted to supplement the strength of the varying moods. It is a taut, relative and timeless testimony to things beautiful and things dark. But for an album to be filled with so much range, so much diversity of emotion and depth of humanity and vitality, it is truly, truly a marvel.