Stereo Embers’ Top 40 Albums of 2014

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“Last year I went fishing with Salvador Dali,” the comedian Steven Wright once joked. “He was using a dotted line. He caught every other fish.”

As the Editor-In-Chief of Stereo Embers Magazine, I sometimes feel that there’s so much music that comes our way, I’m only catching every other fish, too. But then I remember that I’ve got the best music staff in the world and between us, I think we’ve got the lake covered.

Every day I’m learning from them about new bands I would never have heard because I’m so busy hearing all the other ones.

The staff at SEM is a tireless bunch who have a lifelong passion for music and even as I’m writing this our Digital Director Brett Widmann just instant messaged me with a new band he thinks I might like.

(Andrew Jackson Jihad, by the way. And he was right.)

Thank you for your continued support of Stereo Embers Magazine.

Here are our 40 favorite records of the year (listed by SEM writer, in alphabetical order):

Alex Green, Editor-In-Chief

AUGIE MARCH – Havens Dumb

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After a long hiatus, one of my all-time favorite bands returns. Literate, mysterious and lilting, this is a graceful collection of some of the most finely wrought pop songs you’ll ever hear. Key track: “After The Crack Up”

 

JUSTIN CURRIE – Lower Reaches

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On his third solo record, Justin Currie reinforces that he’s not only a peerless lyricist, he’s in possession of one of the most stirring voices in all of music. A flawless disc. Key track: “Bend To My Will”

 

MAX EIDER – Duckdance

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Right before the end of the year Max Eider checks in with his fifth solo disc. Erudite, urbane and filled with finesse, this is sheer sonic elegance. Key track: “Don’t Worry”

 

GAME THEORY – Blaze of Glory/Dead Center

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Game Theory’s Scott Miller may have been the undisputed Poet Laureatte of the 916, but he was also one of the greatest post-modern poets of all time. He also happened to know how to write some of the most infectious, sophisticated, and truly unforgettable pop songs that you’ll ever hear. Omnivore continues to be the preeminent reissue label, and these two re-releases are finely done with generous liner notes, b-sides, and beautiful packaging. Key track: “Shark Pretty”

 

GOLDEN CURTAIN – Dream City

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A nervy balance of dark indie pop and rapturous, ragged soul. Golden Curtain’s Dream City confirms that this New Zealand outfit may very well be one of the very best bands on the planet. Key track: “Network Space”

 

NEW DIVISION – Together We Shine

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L.A.’s New Division have deep synth riffs and dark, brooding melodies, but there’s an ebullience and a joy that shine through every time. Infectious, hook-laden, and altogether masterful work. Key track: “Den Bosch”

 

KIMM ROGERS – Where the Pavement Grows

“Living in these crazy times, beauty can be hard to find that’s pure,” sings Kimm Rogers on her new record, Where the Pavement Grows. A haunting meditation on fleeting beauty and our temporary, shaky place in the world, Where the Pavement Grows is a stunning sonic study of what happens in the extraordinary moments of our ordinary lives. Key track: “Rain”

 

MATTHEW RYAN – Boxers

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Produced by Kevin Salem, Matthew Ryan’s latest is perhaps his best yet. Scruffy soul that brings to mind everyone from Springsteen to John Prine to Raymond Carver, there’s nobody who chronicles the movements of our big shaky hearts quite like Ryan does. Key track: “Boxers”

 

SCRUFFY THE CAT – The Good Goodbye: Unreleased Recordings 1984-1990

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Another needful rescue courtesy of Omnivore.  A reminder that Scruffy The Cat were one of the most refreshing, endearing, and powerful bands around. A blistering collection of pure and spirited rock and roll. A proper goodbye indeed, but as we know, parting is such sweet sorrow. Key track: “The Good Goodbye”

 

SINGLE MOTHERS – Negative Qualities

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Young and tough and uncomfortable with the world, this Ontario outfit come out swinging in what can only be described as a sheer sonic blitz. Singer Drew Thomson is impatient, aggravated and bristling with anger–he’s as close to an aural rendering of Saul Bellow’s “open wound of a man” as you’re ever going to get. Thomson stalks through these numbers with more menace than Darth Maul behind that pesky forcefield and his delivery is redolent with a perfect balance of anxiety and rage. Key track: “Half-Lit”

 

Paul Gleason, Managing Editor

BEACH DAY – Native Echoes

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Beach Day tops their 2013 debut – Trip Trap Attack – by leaps and bounds. Native Echoes features the garage rock duo at their best, with sophisticated songs and arrangements, introspective lyrics, rad guitar riffs, and diverse sonics (think: noise) and moods. Singer-guitarist Kimmy Drake and drummer Skyler Black sound like they were born to play together – and Native Echoes sounds like Beach Day are playing in your own garage. It’s that immediate, that vibrant. Key track: “Don’t Call Me on the Phone”

 

BORIS – Noise

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With Noise – their best album since 2005’s Pink and, perhaps, the best album of their career – Boris make a statement: they can do it all. From shimmering waves of atmospheric guitar feedback, to super-charged punk and industrial rants, to lovely pop, to epic psychedelic guitar anthems, Noise has it all. It’s like The Beatles or Sign ‘O’ the Times for drone addicts. Key track: “Angel”

 

ELEPHANT STONE – The Three Poisons

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Elephant Stone’s most band-oriented album yet is also their finest to date. Leader Rishi Dhir proves once and for all that he’s one of the best musicians and lyricists on the planet. His bass grooves, gorgeous sitar, and earnest words are worth the price of admission. But when you add in the utter creativity of guitarist Gab Lambert and drummer Miles Dupire, you have an album that’s an instant classic and a harbinger of better sounds to come. Key track: “Knock You From Yr Mountain”

 

LAZER/WULF – The Beast of Left and Right

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Lazer/Wulf is one of those rare bands that revels in the unexpected. When you drop the needle on The Beast of Left and Right, you’re faced with a prog-metal power trio that plays with the virtuosity of jazz masters. Constructed as a palindrome, the record forces you to pay attention to each and every unthought-of-before musical idea that constitute the songs. PAY ATTENTION TO LAZER/WULF. Key track: “Choose Again”

 

ORENDA FINK – Blue Dream

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An album of dreams recalled in moments of silent meditation, Blue Dream is so sincere in its attempt to understand the mysteries that beat at the heart of life and death that it makes you marvel at Orenda Fink’s courage and empathy. She writes lyrics that read like poetry and sings them in a voice that’s so beautiful that it touches your soul and makes you realize that we’re not alone on our journey through life and death. Her album, to paraphrase one of its best songs, is indeed a “part of something greater” – namely, all of us. Key track: “This Is a Part of Something Greater”

 

SHABAZZ PALACES – Lese Majesty

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Palaceer Lazaro and Tendai Maraire’s excursion into hip-hop’s unknown, Lese Majesty is a cornucopia of metaphysical and socially conscious rhymes and dark psychedelic soundscapes. It’s a trip into space – one that dazzles and excites, as it washes over you in an interstellar overdrive. Key track: “#Cake”

 

SUN KIL MOON – Benji

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Mark Kozelek has reached a new height on Benji – so much so that it’s safe to say that he’s one of our greatest contemporary poets. Lyrically, Kozelek takes a sledgehammer to any wall that could potentially divide himself from his audience. Like Rimbaud and Whitman, his work is a direct revelation of consciousness – and all the pain, love, suffering, and moods that being human entails. Kozelek’s authenticity is an act of compassion and a true revelation of truth as subjectivity. And his guitar playing is amazing, too. Key track: “I Watched the Film The Song Remains the Same”

 

TEMPLES – Sun Structures

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What happens when four guys from Kettering get together and decide to start a band? They carry their love of The Byrds, The Beatles, Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd, and The Who in their hearts and become Temples. They then release Sun Structures – a record so perfect in its pop craftsmanship and trippy soundscapes that it simultaneously sounds like the perfect amalgamation of their 60s’ psychedelic elders and something completely fresh. Remember: people build temples to honor what’s come before, as well as to look toward the future. Key track: “Shelter Song”

 

THEE SILVER MT. ZION MEMORIAL ORCHESTRA – Fuck Off Get Free We Pour Light on Everything

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Efrim Menuck and co. have made one of the angriest records in recent memory – and that’s a good thing. Fuck Off stabs the heart of a world gone awry with corporate greed. But Menuck’s lyrics are never obvious and transparent. And the band uses all styles of music at its disposal – punk, metal, folk, noise rock, and post rock – to create a harsh musical stew that mirrors his rage. This is a dangerous record for a dangerous time. Key track: “What We Loved Was Not Enough”

 

WET SOCKS – Drips

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Vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Hunter Jayne and drummer John Zimmerman have made a high-octane, garage-punk manifesto of an LP. The Savannah-based duo punctuate each and every track with surprising arrangements and innovative guitar noise that result in a record unlike anything you’ve heard before. Drips drips with creativity, intelligence, and raw power.  Key track: “Deathsox”

Dave Cantrell, Senior Music Editor

ALVVAYS – Alvvays

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Absolutely defining ‘sparkling debut,’ there are a number of other adjectival superlatives we could hurl at this as well: astonishing, effortless, preternaturally confident. Oh, and Canadian, which in the last few years has quite frequently been synonymous with ‘Wow.’ Key track: “Next of Kin”

 

ARRICA ROSE & THE …’S – WAVEFUNCTION

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This year’s sleeper, this sophomore album from the singer/songwriter with the quintessential West Coast voice and a crack band of Dots is so richly produced it reminded many of us of those vintage analog classic albums of the 70s recorded at places like the Record Plant. No wonder the album’s title is all in caps. That it’s also jammed with crisp songcraft and was designed specifically for vinyl, well, how could we not be in love? Key track: “Love You Like That”

 

ASHLEY REAKS – Compassion Fatigue 1-8

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Go on, you try it. Try making a record with eight tracks, the first one one-minute long and in A, the second track two-minutes long and in B and like that.  And don’t forget to make it killer. OK, go on, we’ll wait…impossible, isn’t it? Not if you’re Ashley Reaks it ain’t, it’s a bloody breeze, and a slyly brilliant one at that. Key track: “Cold Body Pussycat”

 

BASTARDS OF FATE – Vampires Are Real and Palpable

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Possibly the most challenging listen of all 40 albums on this list, the rewards unlocked by repeated spins are so rich and satisfying the word ‘ample’ barely suffices. Though one supposes that the gloriously inspired noise they make rather ensures a measure of obscurity, it’s nonetheless unfair. All the world should be basking in this Roanoke band’s mighty – and genius – oddity. Key track: “Winter of Our Discontent”

 

CHROME – Feel It Like a Scientist

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Amazingly, being routinely groundbreaking never gets boring for Helios Creed. So, basically, nothing to report here, other than the fact that Chrome’s first studio album in 12 years feels like it could have come from the same time period that last year’s fabulous ‘lost tapes’ album Half Machine From The Sun and that, folks, defines timeless. Key track: “Prophecy”

 

DEERHOOF – La Isla Bonita

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For 20 years this small band of noise pop versatilists have been bewitching us with their sui generis take on everything skewed/cute/demanding/joyous/inspiring/etc about this rock ‘n’ roll game. Recorded live over a “weeklong sleepover arguing over whether to try and sound like Joan Jett or Janet Jackson,” tossed-off albums should always sound even half this good. Key track: “Paradise Girls”

 

NORTHERN ARMS – Northern Arms

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Though we knew better, there was a smidgen of concern that the luminous despair and majestic soul of their debut single “What You’ve Got On” – single of the year with any runner-up a distant second for at least one of our writers here – would make it difficult for the following album to measure up. But, like we say, we knew better. These Philly kids most certainly did not let us, or anyone else, down. Key track: “What You’ve Got On”

 

SWANS – To Be Kind

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Perhaps the most predictable pick on this whole list, given that it’s made conceivably every major music publication’s list. Which, really, that says enough right there. Key track: “A Little God on My Hands”

 

TUNABUNNY – Kingdom Technology

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Did someone mention something about Athens rising? Oh, wait, that was us. Yeah, they’re coming in from all directions down there again. Not they ever really stopped, of course, it’s just recently it’s just kind of…gone boom, and there could be no better representative of the vitality of the scene down there than Tunabunny. In our review we put them in a league with Deerhoof. We weren’t wrong. Key track: “Power Breaks”

 

VARIOUS ARTISTS – TEMPORARY – Selections from Dunedin’s Pop Underground 2011-2014

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Rare for a compilation to make a year-end list we hear you thinking, but not when it comes from the still-bottomless well of pop perfection that is Dunedin, New Zealand. Then, it’s pretty much guaranteed. Not a naff track on this, which makes nothing but sense given the rude health of the city’s scene these days. Key track: Death & The Maiden, “Flowers for the Blind”

 

Scott Hanavan, Staff Writer

THE BLACK ANGELS – Clear Lake Forest

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Simultaneously playful and dark, Clear Lake Forest could be The Black Angels’ strongest set of songs yet. It’s filled with some of their most memorable melodies, danceable beats, and ominous drones – all in a seven-song EP. Hypnotic and trippy, Clear Lake Forest leaves you wondering where The Angels will fly next. Key track: “Diamond Eyes”

 

CHRIS CATALENA AND THE NATIVE AMERICANS – Here Comes the Time

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Chris Catalena knows his Beach Boys, Black Angels, and Brian Jonestown Massacre. In fact, he knows them so well that he got Nelson Bragg (of Brian Wilson’s band), Rob Campanella, and Alex Maas to participate in the creation of Here Comes the Time. Imagine a groundbreaking synthesis of Americana, pop, and psych, and you’ll have an indication of Catalena’s accomplishment. Key track: “Plain Paper Plane”

 

CORNERS – Maxed Out on Distractions

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Icy synths, echoed and angular guitars, and dark lyrics pour out of Maxed Out on Distractions – one of the best post-punk albums of the year. But Corners are more than Joy Division rip-offs. Their hooks are more prominent, their tone more aggressive and, paradoxically, ambient. They’re what Interpol and Editors should have become after their promising earlier work. Key track: “Love Letters”

 

GOAT – Commune

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If any album of 2014 can be deemed “spiritual,” it’s Goat’s Commune. Meditative and dreamy, the music floats by the listener in layers of drones, Middle Eastern guitar figures, and trippy percussive rhythms. This is world music that speaks to community, oneness, and cultural understanding. Key track: “Hide From the Sun”

 

HOOKWORMS – The Hum

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An ambitious follow-up to their terrific debut Pearl Mystic, Hookworms’ sophomore effort is about the catharsis found in joyful noise. The Hum is energy – and even violence – incarnate. And lead singer MJ’s crazed vocals seemingly revel in the band’s mayhem that surrounds them. Key track: “Radio Tokyo”

 

LA HELL GANG – Thru Me Again

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La Hell Gang have morphed from the garage rock of their first album to the dreamy stuff of Thru Me Again – a surprising delight of hazy shoegaze. The guitars are layered and huge; the mood is brooding. But the band create a sweet balance between short bursts of addictive dream pop and lengthy anthemic pieces based on guitar drones. Key track: “So High”

 

MORGAN DELT – Morgan Delt

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“Timeless” – that’s the word that comes to mind after one listens to Morgan Delt. The album takes psychedelic weirdness and makes it accessible. The songwriting is catchy, but Delt never loses his experimental edge. There were once bands that wrote songs like “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “Eight Miles High,” and “Good Vibrations.” Delt is of their ilk. Key track: “Make My Brain Green”

 

RUN THE JEWELS – Run the Jewels 2

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The brain child of two hip-hop giants – El-P and Killer Mike – Run the Jewels have created their second masterpiece in two years. This is hardcore rap, but with a difference. The beats are off-kilter, and the mood can be joyful just as it can be sinister. Ever the sonic adventurers, El-P and Killer Mike keep things strange and even manage to mix in some techno and punk stylings. Run the Jewels 2 is probably the best hip-hop record of 2014. Key track: “Oh My Darling (Don’t Cry)”

 

TOBACCO – Ultima II Massage

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Tobacco doesn’t know where to stop. Like David Bowie’s original production of The Stooges’ Raw Power, Ultima II Massage benefits from cranking everything up – at least to 11. Tobacco makes the most brutal noises palatable and catchy. In fact, he writes great pop songs, even if said pop songs derive from manipulated vocals, hardcore beats, and shivering synths. I think that’s a chainsaw on the album cover. Did you ever hear the music of the chainsaw? Key track: “Streaker”

 

VIET CONG – Cassette

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Viet Cong have tapped into the 1970s like no other band. Their debut EP is the logical progression of Roxy Music, Brian Eno, Berlin-era David Bowie, and Krautrock. But it’s more than that. Cassette is an EP that’s the result of a band answering the following question: “What would happen if the experimental pop of the 1970s somehow infiltrated the sound of power pop and indie rock bands?” Most likely, an unheard of music, replete with energy, hooks, electronics, prog textures… Key track: “Static Wall”