Brian's Top Ten Albums of 2014

By Brian Brinkman - @sufferingjuke

It’s been a weird year for me with music. Between traveling through SE Asia & India, throwing myself into a complete career shift, and ultimately moving to the East Coast for the first time in my life, I haven’t had a ton of time to sit and reflect on music like I have in recent years. That said, just like each year prior, new albums are released, and with a bit of luck, a few work their way into my day-to-day life, oftentimes overtaking everything else. In that sense, this year was no different.

While I didn’t absorb nearly as much music as I’d have liked to, in many ways, I absorbed what I did with even more intense fervor than I ever have before. Through the highs and lows, and all the bowls of Pho I ate at 7am, these records were there for me whenever I needed them.

Below are my ten favorite records from a year full of transition and change, and new concepts coming at me faster than I was capable of responding to.

Along with my top 10, I’ve also included three honorable mentions that couldn’t quite crack my final list, but are certainly worth your time in their own right.

Honorable Mentions

Aphex Twin — Syro

Grouper — Ruins

Mac DeMarco — Salad Days

10. Tinariwen — Emmaar
They’re a band of Malian exiles who formed in Libya and fled to America to record their 2014 LP. Released in early February,Emmaar is as spacious and expansive as it is foreboding. As I prepared to leave Korea in search of the warmer pastures of SE Asia, this record filled me with the sense of possibility, and a harrowing sense of dread for the unknown. The desert is where men are made and destroyed, afterall. For all this ominousness, however, there’s a banner of hope in the vastness. When the album reaches it’s emotional peak with the lone sentimentality of “Emajer,” you’re left with a comfort in said unknown, the realization that no matter the struggle, there’s peace at the end of everything.

09. Flying Lotus — You’re Dead!
Seriously, this motherfucker killsme. Noise and sugarcoated ideas fall from the ether in every single song he crafts. Whereas 2012’sUntil The Quiet Comes felt like the subdued — yet highly entertaining — comedown from a night of MDMA, You’re Dead! is a concept record about stepping over the other side. This is Bitches Brew for the digital age. Proof through sound that whatever it is we think death is, we’re probably not imagining hard enough. To Steven Ellison, death is a cacophonous party, filled with equally horrifying and childlike sounds and musical shapes exploding in and out of every corner of the universe. One thing is certain upon listening to You’re Dead, if dying sounds anything like this, we’re all in for a helluva time.

08. Real Estate — Atlas
Suburbia is nothing but a constant conflict between placid ease and the tension of nothingness. Few bands have gleamed as much from this conflict in recent years like New Jersey’s Real Estate. A maturation record for the band,Atlas is so plainly sad and pretty that it’s hard to feel anything but compassion for the guys who crafted it. For me, the record offered a window into the world of home while I trekked Asia on shitty buses and broken-down boats. Much like the record, however, the reality of actually arriving home, was ultimately far sadder and far more conflicted than I could have ever predicted.

07. Strand Of Oaks — HEAL
live for records like this. A week ago I’d never heard of it or the band. A short text from a close friend of mine changed all that. This album overwhelmed everything about me instantly. Like My Morning Jacket — if they’d never started sucking — this album balances raw noise, space, thrilling solos, reverb, and the kinds of communally isolated lyrics that make for fantastic rock anthems. It sure helps as well when you write a song about as damn near perfect as “Shut In.” It also helps you’re your mid-album epic is a slow burner dedicated to the songwriting mastery of Jason Molina. While it’s been present for only a small part of the last year of my life, HEAL proves, more than anything, that all it takes sometimes is one listen to know you’ve found an immediate classic.

06. Nils Frahm — Spaces
I was on a snowy train ride from Seoul to Chuncheon listening to this record for the first time. The view outside, passing through the mountains of Gangwondo, the friends surrounding me — all hooked into their own portable music devices — the impending trek through Asia right in front of me; it all mixed and swelled and brought me close to tears. After two years, I was leaving Korea. No song hit me in the early months of 2014 quite like “Says.” No song could similarly inspire such a sense of sadness, loneliness, and gratitude. The first album that really captured me this year; Spaces was the first album that spoke to me and made me feel like I was truly understood. Like an old friend now, Spaceshas been there throughout 2014 in the early mornings, the wee-hours, the long drives, the deadline writing sessions, and the slow walks through my hometown.

05. Brian Eno & Karl Hyde — High Life
Eno is a musical God. It’s true. At this point, how could you deny it without proving total ignorance to everything important that’s happened in music these last 40 years? He’s never going to become irrelevant. Every band you listen to, every band you love, Eno has touched them in some way, shape, or form. Be it influencing every genre to embrace space and simple melody, or exposing the critical importance of noise within pop songs, Eno has singlehandedly changed the musical landscape over the past forty years. OnHigh Life, one of two records he released in 2014 with Karl Hyde, the master once again proved how timeless and innovative he is. Listen to “Return” and try not to weep for the sheer sake that you’re alive.

04. St. Vincent — St. Vincent
While men may still in fact rule rock, even here in 2014, Annie Clark, aka St. Vincent, is living proof that our time on top is in fact (thankfully) limited. Shredding, confident, bold, artistic, fearless, melodic, funky, hawt-as-fuck…just a few words to describe Ms. Clark at this point, seven years into her already noteworthy career. While not as overtly weird as 2011’s Strange MercySt. Vincent expands outwards on the sounds in her head and shows her off with a pop sensibility, making these the most Byrne-esque songs she’s ever written. Accessibility and grandiose-imagery come to mind, especially in the maniacally infectious “Digital Witness.” Rarely, has an outright critique of American laziness and destitution sounded so Goddamn fun.

03. Sun Kil Moon — Benji
It took me the first three months of the year, but I finally read David Foster Wallace’s masterpiece,Infinite Jest. Perhaps it was fitting then that, while reading it, Sun Kil Moon’s Benji was released. A record that valued the kind of bare-naked reportage and in-depth descriptions of the most mundane and nuanced memories of life, it fit perfectly on the shelf right next to young Hal Incandenza and wizened Don Gatley.

Conversationalist in its overall tone, bare-boned and cold, Bejni is peerless in 2014 in its ability to stare blankly into the truths that make up our existence, and reflect them without any hint of irony or sympathy. How fitting it was then that this was the record that comforted me when my uncle suddenly passed away, when I turned my life on its head, and when I found myself all alone once again, at years-end, on a completely new and challenging adventure. “You don’t just raise two kids and take out your trash and die,” Mark Kozelek sings on the opener Carissa. Though, perhaps that is all we do. This conflict, between mundane needs to get through the day, and the moments of clarity that make up our lives are at the heart of Benji. Are we simply animals pushing forth towards the next break of light, or are we sensory beings truly responsible in each moment? It’s this conflict that made season 1 of True Detective so damn riveting.

In the end, for me at least, Benji shows the need to “find some poetry to give some sense to this and give some deeper meaning” to all the struggles we face throughout our lives. Color is a must for Kozelek. I’m right there with him.

02. Spoon — They Want My Soul
On 2010’s Transference, Spoon looked to shift away from the overtly groove-based ditties that had defined much of their best music for the past decade. They’d always ridden a fine line between true indie-heroes and Shins-y–esque crossover pop. WithTransference they tore away from this approach and ran towards the more challenging noises and idiosyncrasies found in the spaces and sounds between their notes and melodies. The result was something of an awkward rebuttal of everything they’d done so well to that point, yet ultimately an album that proved to be a grower, and a sign of a potential mid-career rebirth.

There was nothing awkward or indiscernible about They Want My Soul. From the first moment I heard it, it hit me with visceral power and emotional clarity. The groove returned, but mixed with the noise-based experimentations of Transference, here we had the seductive strut of “Inside Out,” the broken-hearted 3am celebration of “Do You,” the pulsating snarl of “Knock Knock Knock,” and the nostalgically-rich pop-punk of “New York Kiss.” Packaged tightly in under-40 minutes, the album rejoices in accessible weirdness. A moment of equal rebirth and triumphant arrival, They Want My Soul is the kind of record that can extend a bands career by at least a decade simply based on its existence.

01. The War On Drugs — Lost In The Dream

There’s that moment in any period of sustained personal conflict when everything seems to break and there’s sudden clarity. The conflict and the struggle are far from over, but for perhaps the first time since darkness and uncertainty lowered over your world, there’s a sign of light. If you’re a particularly reflective and/or sensitive type, these moments are what you live for, that point when you suddenly understand that it’s not all on you. The moment where you know there’s a way out. A way towards the light.

Sometimes life is just too much to handle. Sometimes a shrug is all you can offer. Sometimes you just have to unleash a maniacal “Woo!” to the heavens, and celebrate the simple pleasures that help bridge one day to the next. It’s these moments of true clarity from the darkness, and the reflexive tears that follow, that Adam Granofsky spent two years constructing walls of sound and melodic soundscapes to for his masterpiece, Lost In The Dream.

As I write all this, listening to the album for probably the 300th time this year, I can feel my tear ducts welling up, and my heart pulsing, and a lump forming in my throat. This feeling is automatic whenever I put Lost In The Dream on. I pray it never goes away. I hope I can listen to this album as an old man and get the same feelings from it I do today. From the frustrated melodic vision of “Under The Pressure,” to the guitar-frenzied road-rock of “Red Eyes” and “An Ocean Between The Waves,” to the literal suffering of “Suffering,” to the celebratory shimmer of “Burning,” to the ultimate clarity and personal mandate in “Eyes To The Wind” and “In Reverse,” these songs are epic in every regard. Musical testaments to the modern struggle for any of the romantics left down here.

No album has meant as much to me in the past five years as Lost In The Dream. It was there as a gift from my brother in my inbox on my third day in Vietnam, just waiting to be opened. (God, if only I could go back to that moment right before this record became a part of my everyday life.) It was there the night I found out my uncle passed away, and immediately connected me to my Dad and my brother from across the world. It was there on an 18-hr overnight bus ride in a monsoon through Southern Laos and Eastern Cambodia. It was there in a mansion in the jungles of Bali, when one of the best friendships I’ve ever had was born. It was there blasting through the pavilion at SPAC on a rain-soaked July 3rd night. It was there in the streets of Chicago when I ultimately met the band and shared in an intimate concert with them. It was there when my family reunited in September, exactly six months after my uncle passed. It was there on every drive I took between Chicago and Annapolis this past fall. It was there on my first walk across the Eastport Bridge to my new job. And it’s here right now.

As 2014 — one of the most riveting, challenging, eye-opening, heart-breaking and affecting years of my life — turns to 2015, my only hope is that this album continues to grow with me rather than simply become a relic of the year gone by. Yet, in writing that, I’m immediately brought back to the overt themes covered throughout the record, and I’m assured it’ll be one of those albums I carry with me until I pass on. There will continue to be moments of darkness, conflict, isolation, confusion and loss. Life is cyclical like that. For whatever unknowns are up around the bend, there will always be Lost In The Dream. A light in my life, proving, that in the end, no matter the struggle, there’s always hope, there’s always love, and there are always dreams worth getting lost in.

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