Year in review: Chase’s top 10 albums of 2014

By Chase Myers

Every year we are introduced to new social trends in art and pop culture, often becoming symbols for the year they emerge.

In the past couple years, the music industry experienced a shift in what is considered “popular” in the ears of the masses.

Some albums become successful because they are marketable and have a targeted audience—albums with calculated success. Then there are genuinely crafted albums from unsung artists, who also bring something new to headphones around the world.

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Here is my list of this year’s top 10 albums, focusing on musically stunning albums not fueled by some marketing team in Los Angeles.

10. “Lazaretto” – Jack White

Half of The White Stripes and mastermind behind the The Raconteurs, Jack White released his second solo album titled “Lazaretto,” a bluesy-progressive ode to his thoughts. White has developed a distinct sound during the years with various musical projects, including a guitar sound comparable to a mix of old blues slide-guitar and Tom Morello’s hip-hop style from Rage Against the Machine. In this album, White rides the fine line between art and insanity with his haunting lyrics and his unique guitar work. White continues his rock career without any hitches in this album with songs like “Would You Fight for My Love,” and the album’s title track. What makes this album special is its ability to transcend time. White’s odd performing style cannot be matched up with a specific time period and “Lazaretto” is a perfect example.

9. “St. Vincent” – St. Vincent

St. Vincent brings tasteful obscurity to a whole new level with her self-titled album. With a mixture of odd beats and peculiar lyrics, she achieves an avant-garde approach to alternative music. The album begins with a slightly offbeat intro track titled “Rattlesnake,” which introduces some of St. Vincent’s reoccurring instrumental themes like syncopated beats and strange synth patches. I would recommend this album to those who think they know everything about the alternative genre; they will likely find something they’ve never come across.

8. “Oxymoron” – Schoolboy Q 

The debut album from west coast rapper Schoolboy Q, “Oxymoron” matches grimy, yet heavy beats with lyrics that make you stop and think. This first song on the album, “Gangsta,” provides a hard and heavy prelude to the album, which features several of Top Dawg Entertainment’s very own talents like Jay Rock and Kendrick Lamar. Recognizable names also found on the record include 2 Chainz and Tyler the Creator. There are three kinds of modern hip-hop albums: Party albums, which lack lyrical substance but are popular for their instrumental innovation and danceable beats; deep albums, which focus on lyrics meant to be heard and not danced to and albums that can achieve both. Oxymoron has a bit of each with songs like “Collard Greens,” which has a catchy, danceable chorus with a deeper lyrical story. The album easily transitions to anthems like “Hoover Street,” which has a gritty, “live or die” message. This is not you’re everyday hip-hop record.

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7. “This Is All Yours” – Alt-J

With a sound to match the album’s abstract artwork, alternative rock band Alt-J brings innovation with their sophomore album, “This Is All Yours.” The opening track, appropriately titled, “Intro,” starts with a bizarre a cappella vocal style, which blends into the following track, “Arrival in Nara,” a piano and acoustic guitar ballad. The goal of “This Is All Yours,” is to captivate you with instrumentals and hook you before the vocals even come in. This sets the standard considerably high for any alternative rock album because of its diverse expression. Listening to it front-to-back feels like a gauntlet of ideas thrown at you in the most tasteful way. Not one song builds off the same idea or structure as another.

6. “Ultraviolence” – Lana Del Rey

Lana Del Rey introduced the world to her mysterious, yet atmospheric voice nearly three years ago with her debut album, “Born to Die.” Her new album, “Ultraviolence,” fuses nostalgic ’70s instrumentals and washed-out drum beats with Rey’s voice echoing over top. Simplicity works well for artists whose talent needs no embellishment, which describes Lana Del Rey on this album. Her ability to capture an audience with little more than vocals is evident in songs like, “Brooklyn Baby,” and “Pretty When You Cry.” “Ultraviolence” is a must listen, even for someone who is not a Lana Del Rey fan.

5. “Singles” – Future Islands

Future Islands, an experimental rock band from Baltimore released their album “Singles,” propelling them out of the underground rock scene and bringing their sound to a larger audience. The tone of the album is set from the opening track “Seasons (Waiting on You),” combining diverse keyboard patches, distorted guitar riffs and front man Samuel Herring’s forceful, yet whimsical voice. Lyrically this album balances the ability to use strong imagery and maintaining a normal structure. Some musicians try to compose novels in their songs, and the music is too complex to become catchy. On the other end of the spectrum, some artists rely on catchiness, and the lyrics lack any substance. “Singles,” relies on quick, poetic lyrics and stays structurally concise. Any song on the album can get stuck in your head and every lyric can strike a chord.

4. “Benji” – Sun Kil Moon

Music can bring a sense of peace and relaxation to people, whether it be through the release of anger or creation of a calm atmosphere. “Benji,” from Sun Kil Moon, mixes calming folk guitar and vocals to achieve the latter. Founded in 2002 in San Francisco by Mark Kozelek, Sun Kil Moon is a folk rock solo act with five previous studio albums, and has songs featured in numerous movies and television shows. His sixth studio album, “Benji,” proves simplicity can be effective. The album begins with the song, “Carissa,” which tells the story of a girl through story-like imagery. If folk music leaves the listener with anything, it should be a story, either lyrically or instrumentally and “Benji” excels in leaving an impression.

3. “In the Lonely Hour” – Sam Smith

Sam Smith’s story is a perfect example of the emergence of pure talent. From playing small shows in the U.K. to performing in front of thousands of people, Smith climbed the music industry’s treacherous tower. Asking someone about Sam Smith in 2013 would most likely result in some blank stares. Smith’s voice along with his gospel influence can easily be distinguished and a provides a breath of fresh air from the typical top-20 artist. “In the Lonely Hour” is Smiths debut album and can be considered a compilation of his numerous viral songs. Smith’s success on YouTube and other media sharing sites has translated well into the music industry as the album debuted at No. 2 on the U.S. Billboard Top 200 and went straight to No. 1 in the U.K. Songs such as “Stay With Me,” “Latch,” and “Money on My Mind,” are easily recognizable and have garnered a well-deserved amount of air-time on radio stations around the world.

2. “x” – Ed Sheeran

The sophomore album from the U.K. native Ed Sheeran earns a well-deserved spot on this list. Sheeran has established a name for himself as one of the best singer-songwriters in the game. His soulful voice dances over well-placed guitar chords and rhythms in nearly everything he releases. The diversity in “x” is noticeable between tracks like, “Thinking out Loud,” a wedding-ready love song and, “The Man,” which features Sheeran rapping about his life and what is on his mind, as well as, “Afire Love,” which touches on the topic of Alzheimer’s. The deluxe version of the album is long with 16 songs, but Sheeran’s original subject matter or word usage keeps listeners interested. It is not hard to catch something new with every listen of this album.

1. “Lost in the Dream” – The War on Drugs

For my No. 1 pick, I had to choose an album including and trancscending all the musical virtues of 2014: a true work of art. Philadelphia alternative rock band, “The War on Drugs,” was formed in 2005 and had not released an album since their sophomore project “Slave Ambient” in 2011. With a sound reflective of the title, “Lost in the Dream” the listener is enveloped in a dream-like world of instrumental bliss and haunting vocals. The acoustic guitar and piano match up in perfect harmony in tracks like, “Under the Pressure,” and, “Eyes to the Wind,” but the band showcases their diversity with tracks like, “An Ocean in Between the Waves,” which features a very electronic bass and snare beat and sounds like a modern alternative song. Music should provide an escape, and it is not difficult to get gently lost in this album.

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