I’ve been doing these top ten lists for over a decade now and as the years go on I continue to stress the distinction between “favorite” and “best.” Taste isn’t something that can be quantified.
I no longer feel the need to be part of the national conversation. I’m not interested in being one of the hundreds of people that will write about The War On Drugs or Tycho (though these albums are important and are worth your attention).
My mission is always to add something different to the conversation. Most of these albums haven’t received national coverage, and those that have haven’t gotten nearly as much attention as they should have.
So in the spirit of bringing something different to the conversation, here are my 10 favorite albums of 2014.
9Bach – Tincian
Welsh outfit 9Bach have released my favorite international album of the year here in Tincian. Blending elements of traditional Welsh folk music with contemporary textures ranging from dub to indie, this is a dense and moody record anchored around the ethereal voice of Lisa Jen.
I have a tendency to gravitate towards lyrical analysis, so to have an album like this that’s so captivating yet not sung in English is a welcome break from the microscope.
Whitney Ballen – Falls
Speaking of indelible female vocalists, this album by Whitney Ballen is really a treasure. I’ve tried to describe Whitney’s voice many times to no avail. It’s incredibly unique, somehow childlike and welcoming, yet arresting and haunting at the same time.
Lyrically, Falls is an album that centers around geography, both the physical (the state of Washington) and the personal (either lived or observed by Whitney).
Kindness – Otherness
I first heard of Kindness (the stage name of vocalist Adam Bainbridge) through his amazing cover of The Replacements’ “Swingin’ Party,” which really is one of the best covers of the past decade.
Here on Otherness, Kindness gives us classics of his own. Bainbridge’s vocals are mixed high on all the songs, and their plainspoken quality creates an interesting dichotomy when they meet the busied and layered backgrounds of tracks like “This Is Not About Us.”
Chumped – Teenage Retirement
It’s been an incredible year for punk bands that play pop songs. In their first release, Chumped have quickly become my favorite punk band on the national scene reminding me of a (mostly) female-fronted vintage Superchunk.
Lyrics like “And we drank and we talked shit and I was happy / Tried so desperately to hold onto the feeling / Of being young, of being sure, of being lucky” from “Name That Thing” seem to perfectly encapsulate the millennial tendency to grow up in name only.
Magic Fades – Push Thru
It’s no secret that Magic Fades is one of the most creative acts in Portland right now. The duo have managed to wed R&B with hypermodern soundscapes, yet somehow leave its soul intact.
Featuring a great cameo by Shy Girls on “Stessin” and a club jam in “IDGAFAM,” this seems like the outfit’s most singles-heavy release yet.
Of course, sex is front and center here, and I swear if “Fresh Out Tha Shower” doesn’t become a nationwide smash I don’t wanna be an American anymore.
Ryan Adams – Ryan Adams
Ryan Adams has become one of the most underrated singer-songwriters of the past 20 years in part due to a glut of releases, making it incredibly difficult for the average music fan (and the critics that cater to them) to separate the sublime from the mediocre.
Here on this self-titled release, Adams seems to have regained his own voice, fittingly enough given the eponymous title. Tracks like “Kim” and “Just Like Fire” finally sound like they belong among his classic tracks from the late ‘90s and early aughts.
It’s incredibly rare to see an artist of Adam’s stature regain his footing, so this album (and his deep back catalog) should not be missed by any serious music fan.
Mr. Bones – Mr. Bones
I work at Starbucks every weekend so every Friday, Saturday and Sunday I drive a barely-functional 2002 Ford Taurus to work. The heat is broken. The power windows are broken. The engine is almost broken (it stalls out at nearly every red light).
The tape player, however, is fully functional and Mr. Bones self-titled has never left the chamber, meaning I’ve probably heard the full release six times a week since mid-July. You should listen to it, too.
Hard Girls – A Thousand Surfaces
You can find my in-depth opinions on Hard Girl’s A Thousand Surfaces here.
Rozwell Kid – Too Shabby
I’ve followed Rozwell Kid’s career since 2010 when they were barely known outside of West Virginia, which is probably not the state you’d expect the band that released the best punk album of the year to hail from, yeah?
This record finds the band writing with great restraint and maturity so, when things really rip like during the anthem-like ending of “Halloween 3.5” and “Armadillo,” it’s impossible to not take notice.
Manny Monday – Workaholix
Hailing from the city of roses, Manny Monday’s Workaholix is simply one of the best hip-hop albums in recent memory, Portland or otherwise.
So many hip-hop albums are bogged down by skits, too many tracks or topical lyrics that don’t bear repeat listens or warrant attention years after the fact.
In Workaholix you have a fully realized, deftly sequenced and expertly produced (largely by Portland savant Stewart Villain) instant classic with lyrics that are rooted in the working class and explore larger themes of self-doubt and following your dreams regardless of the cost.
I’m excited to see where Manny goes from here.
Blake Hickman is the promotions director at KPSU, Portland State’s campus radio station. Student hosted shows can be found on kpsu.org.