1. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City
The 2000s are littered with buzz bands that faltered on album number three. Album three is put-up or shut-up time for bands whose debut records quickly elevated them into the upper reaches of the music culture conversation. The second record gets a bit of a pass; the pressure/tension to both deliver another great album but yet also not make the same album is not an easy one to manage, so we cut some slack if it comes out a bit “second verse, same as the first.” But the third album? That’s where you figure out if you’re listening to a okay-to-good band that managed to luck into a great album, or if this is truly, actually a capital-G Great band. For every Arcade Fire (The Suburbs), there are a dozen Interpols (Our Love to Admire) or Bloc Parties (Intimacy) littering the millennium’s digital bargain bins.
If you had put a gun to my head and asked me to put money on the table, I’d have wagered Vampire Weekend ending up in the latter category. I loved the band’s self-titled debut but it was such a calculated, complete sound that it offered no sense as to whether the band had any idea where else to take it; one entertaining formalist exercise does not a career make. Contra offered clues as to the band’s potential (“Giving Up the Gun,” “Taxi Cab”) but also a number of songs that played like Vampire Weekend Part Two.
What’s so striking about Modern Vampires of the City, what makes it my album of the year, isn’t just that it heralds the confirmation that Vampire Weekend are a capital-G great band. It’s that the album finds the heart I never expected from the band. Vampire Weekend was like a grad school coffee house take on life, love and humanity; Modern Vampires is weighted with the ache of real life lived. The album’s centerpieces — ballads “Hannah Hunt” and “Ya Hey” — are broken little songs with real complicated people, not caricatures, at their centres. The record’s twisted relationship with faith is every bit as messed up as its relationships with humans, and the knottiness of the record’s little anthems stuck with me all year.
And yet, the playfulness that made the band so exciting five years ago is still intact, particularly musically. From the pitch-shifted vocals to the wide variety of drum sounds, Modern Vampires is full of earworms and never ceases to entertain, even when the pace slows. (The band has also gotten better at velocity; though they come from the same wheelhouse, there’s a control to a track like “Diane Young” that was lacking on the more manic “Cousins.”) And maybe that’s what’s so thrilling about Modern Vampires: its greatness doesn’t seem miraculous, but well-built, carefully assembled, with an enthusiasm suggesting this band may have many more surprises left for us in the years ahead.
About a month ago, this album would have been a few notches lower on this list, but my esteem for Haim’s debut has continued to grow in leaps and bounds. (Heck, I may well look back on this list in a couple months and wonder how on earth it wasn’t in the top spot.) Radio-friendly guitar pop has felt like an endangered species for so long that Days Are Gone plays like a wildlife rescue, with amazing drum and vocal performances adding a modern spark to a classic sound.
The album that topped my Polaris ballot this year, and which I had the privilege of arguing for as part of the grand jury. As pleased as I was with our eventual choice, Heartthrob deserved its place at that table and then some. Tegan and Sara have been flirting with this album for years and finally went for it — big hooks, widescreen sentiments, massive synthesizers, but with the twins’ biting songwriting talents still intact. Sellout? Hardly – Tegan and Sara bought in.
A nostalgia exercise? Maybe — there’s an argument to be made that this album could have come out 20 years ago as-it-is and been a logical continuation of Loveless. But as the album moves along it takes steps away from the formula, where by the end it’s a noisy, colossal, enthralling beast of a record. Few “comebacks” are this confident.
I’m still wrestling with this one, but I’m actually reaching the point where, based on the response to the record, I might actually start considering it underrated. Yes, the publicity was arty and excessive but I can’t help but feel that if some young upstart band had released a debut album this playful, inspired and wide-ranging, everyone would be calling Arcade Fire the next big thing. So why not give it its due?
I wrote several hundred words on this one for AUX, so I’ll just quickly reinforce how great it is to hear a rock album genuinely fighting for the form’s relevance in the here-and-now, and not just relegating the genre a nostalgia exercise. (See also: my number 8 record.)
Stetson’s second volume of his New History Warfare trilogy was my favourite discovery of 2011. Vol. 3 is less of a leap, artistically, but may be the better record. Stetson’s soundscapes are more varied this time around, like he’s painting individual characters that move through the album’s open spaces. And Justin Vernon is the perfect vocal partner for Stetson’s saxophone: both of them have such an incredible timbral range that they can switch from heavenly to horrifying at a moment’s notice.
Oh god, that title: so presumptuous, so self-aggrandizing. And then… Fall Out Boy kinda pulls it off. Like Paramore, Save Rock and Roll is unapologetic in the way it raids from pop and hip hop to add currency to its sound, and both its attitude and its catchiness held up for me time and time again in 2014. Fall Out Boy are a band I grew to appreciate once I had some distance from their mostly-awful pop-punk scene; Save Rock and Roll made me a full-blown fan.
Now, all that said, I’m not anti-nostalgia; sometimes, with the right kick, it’s thrilling. Such is the case with Silence Yourself, which sounds in many ways like it could have been stolen right out of the Factory Records archives. But with passionate delivery and, particularly, Jenny Beth’s intense, androgynous vocals, Savages deliver one of those fully-formed debuts that sparks a fever.
My love of Superchunk’s 2010 record, Majesty Shredding, has only grown over the past few years. I Hate Music isn’t as hook-y, but in some ways it hits harder. It’s a pop-punk record that’s not just about adulthood but what gets lost along the way. Death looms over the record, and its catchy set of memorable riffs are as concerned with absence as presence.
I enjoy loud, noisy Nick Cave, but Push the Sky Away is more my speed. When Cave goes into bluesy, rambly poet mode, he occasionally touches something special and Push is his best album in that style in years. From the ominous “We No Who U R” to the unsettling title track, it’s an album that burrows uncomfortably under your skin.
An album I’m still unpacking, and may still be doing so years from now. Its collection of rattles and hums are uneasy, complicated but always compelling, its evolving soundscapes of noise building and receding with incredible confidence. It’s a landmark album for Hecker, one which — though its not an easy listen — is accessible in a way he’s only teased at before.
Another satisfying debut record, this one chock-full of supremely confident singles. The record loses steam on those few songs when Lauren Mayberry isn’t singing, but that’s simply because her warm, Scottish voice is the perfect foil for the band’s cold, efficient synthesizer patterns. At a time when everyone and their little brother is making laptop electro albums, The Bones of What You Believe separates itself with great songwriting.
My third Ariel Rechtshaid-produced album on this list (as my AUX essay made clear, I’m a fan), Night Time is messy, 2 a.m. pop music. There’s wafts of drugs and alcohol in every note, but it’s more about the heart-on-sleeve feelings that can come out at that time of night, the awkward mix of possibility and sadness that no amount of drowned liquids can contain
One of the year’s more divisive albums; some people have it at or near the top of their list, others think it’s a snore. Me, I was pretty captivated by Random Access Memories’ massive ambition, broad scope and slow-building earworms. A lot depends on how taken you were by gonzo tracks like “Giorgio by Moroder” and “Touch”; I was on-board.
Ten more records that stuck with me throughout the year:
16. The Knife – Shaking the Habitual: Far more my ideal Knife album, but I’ll be damned if isn’t something impressive.
16. Majical Cloudz – Impersonator: One of the more emotionally captivating albums of the year, with Devon Walsh delivering a set of powerhouse vocal performances.
18. Basia Bulat – Tall Tall Shadow: A big leap forward for a songwriter I’ve always enjoyed; a fuller, more complete album that sees Bulat truly living up to her potential.
19. Kanye West – Yeezus: Nowhere near the album-of-the-year it’s being made out to be — second half is way too spotty — but another incredible sounding, complicated addition to Kanye’s discography.
20. Two Hours Traffic – Foolish Blood: Should have been the record that brought the buzz back to a great little pop band; sad that it’s now a farewell.
21. Shad – Flying Colours: Yes, I know, having Kanye/Shad as my two hip hop albums here makes me seem like “that guy”; in this case, what can I say, Flying Colours was another above-the-rest record from arguably Canada’s best MC.
22. The Heavy Blinkers – Health: A great local “band” — Jason MacIssac and friends — returns with Jenn Grant adding her voice to a wonderful set of orchestral pop songs.
23. Janelle Monae – The Electric Lady: The year’s best R&B smorgasboard from a wonderfully restless, manic performer.
24. A Tribe Called Red – Nation II Nation: Another record I had the privilage of spending a great deal of time with during the Polaris process, and my appreciation for it grew every time I went back to it. Tracks like “The Road” represent a huge leap for the trio, moving them beyond “dance” music into a much broader electronica canvas.
25. The National – Trouble Will Find Me: Almost didn’t include this — can’t shake that it’s almost National-by-numbers — but a late-season re-listen led to its mood hitting me in just the right way. So here it is.