CHARTING: The best albums from the year’s first half

Future Islands (courtesy NPR)
Future Islands (courtesy NPR)

As June comes to a close, I take a look back at this year’s best new music so far. These are the top 15 albums of the year, from Neneh Cherry to Mac DeMarco, Lykke Li to Swans.

15. Neneh Cherry, Blank Project

NENEH CHERRY’S RETURN TO POP MUSIC felt inspired from the moment she announced Blank Project was produced by influential electronica producer Four Tet. And her first solo album since the mid-90s is an incredibly moving statement from an artist with a lot to say, and a blank canvass to project her art onto.

ESSENTIAL: “Across the Water”, “Out of the Black” (feat. Robyn), “Everything”

14. Lykke Li, I Never Learn

A BREAK-UP IS NEVER AN EASY THING to go through. And while most of us cure our heartache with a pint of ice cream, Lykke Li turned it into her most emotionally affecting musical creation yet. These barebones tracks are stripped of any fluff, and performed with a heartbreaking conviction. You wish are didn’t hurt this good.

ESSENTIAL: “No Rest For the Wicked”, “Gunshot”, “Love Me Like I’m Not Made of Stone”

13. Future Islands, Singles

SINGLES IS AN APT TITLE FOR FUTURE ISLANDS’ fantastic 2014 release, as the album bursts at the seams with instantly likable and gratifying melodies and hooks. Sam Herring’s vocals continue to grow in direct relation with his stature, making this a definitive statement from a band far too deserving of all the acclaim.

ESSENTIAL: “Seasons (Waiting on You)”, “Back in the Tall Grass”, “Fall From Grace”

12. Angel Olsen, Burn Your Fire For No Witness

“‘I WANTED NOTHING BUT FOR THIS to be the end,’ sings Angel Olsen on the opening track of her newly released LP Burn Your Fire For No Witness. For 11 tracks, Olsen fights, resigns, soars and cries, working her way through her battles to the very end.”

ESSENTIAL: “Unfucktheworld”, “Forgiven/Forgotten”, “White Fire”

11. Perfect Pussy, Say Yes to Love

MEREDITH GRAVES AND THE REST OF Perfect Pussy don’t make music to sound pretty. It’s because of that that their loud, deafening rock music works as well as it does. Perfect Pussy shines a light on the things we might not want to see, and forces us to face the reckoning.

ESSENTIAL: “Driver”, “Interference Fits”, “VII”

10. Ought, More Than Any Other Day

A SURPRISINGLY VITAL DEBUT ALBUM, Ought’s More Than Any Other Day begins with what sounds like an extremely lo-fi take on Franz Ferdinand’s rhythmic playing, on the sensational “Pleasant Heart”, to the free-wheeling “Habit”, the album’s boldest statement.

ESSENTIAL: “Pleasant Heart”, “Habit”, “Clarity!”

9. Mac DeMarco, Salad Days

TURNS OUT BEING A SLACKER IS HARD. Salad Days marks a subtle but significant shift in DeMarco, his sound maturing a startling degree. “Passing Out Pieces” touches on how thin the recording industry can stretch someone while “Chamber of Reflection” ditches the guitar for synths and proves that DeMarco isn’t a one-trick pony. He’s just as complex as the rest of us.

ESSENTIAL: “Brother”, “Let My Baby Stay”, “Pieces of Me”

8. Parquet Courts, Sunbathing Animal

PARQUET COURTS DO THEIR BEST to strip away the “stoner” tag given to the band following their debut LP Light Up Gold. So what if their breakthrough song was called “Stoned and Starving”. That’s just one instance on one of last year’s most overlooked records. The band quickly follow up Gold with an album that tops it in ever metric imaginable. The hooks are stronger, the lyrics are even more defined, and the band generally sound more confident in the direction this music is going. They make excellent tour guides.

ESSENTIAL: “Dear Ramona”, “Instant Disassembly”, “Ducking and Dodging”

7. tUnE-yArDs, Nikki Nack

WHAT’S MOST IMPRESSIVE ABOUT NIKKI NACK is that Garbus has realized that, through the success of w h o k i l l, her voice holds enormous weight … ‘I’ve got something to say’ she proudly asserts later, stating what anyone listening to Nikki Nack, or tUnE-yArDs for any discernible amount of time, had already surmised; Garbus is not afraid to speak her mind, whether through her own vocal chords or the beat of her drum. We’re all better for it.”

ESSENTIAL“Time of Dark”, “Real Thing”, “Stop That Man”

6. Cloud Nothings, Here and Nowhere Else

THEN BALDI’S EFFECT-LADEN VOCALS come pouring in, creating a hypnotic, surreal experience, which can summarize the experience of listening to Here and Nowhere Else: completely natural yet wholly unexpected. The best of both worlds.”

ESSENTIAL: “Psychic Trauma”, “Pattern Walks”, “I’m Not Part of Me”

5. Sun Kil Moon, Benji

THE ALBUM TIME-AND-TIME AGAIN reinforces the notion that life can change in a hurry. Benji, then, is an admirable tribute to those lost and those found, to those loved and those unknown. The song may remain the same, but nothing else ever will.”

ESSENTIAL: “Dogs”, “I Watched the Film ‘The Song Remains the Same’ Today”, “Ben’s My Friend”

4. Swans, To Be Kind

I OFTEN FIND MYSELF WONDERING, how does Michael Gira find the energy to do what he does? The lead singer of Swans, after a lengthy hiatus, has been hard at work on epic, hour(s) long albums since 2010. Following 2012’s The Seer, Gira and co. somehow found the time to record yet another album of brutal, guttural records that feast on our most primal emotions.

ESSENTIAL: “Screen Shot”, “A Little God In My Hands”, “Oxygen”

3. How To Dress Well, “What Is This Heart?”

“”WHAT IS THIS HEART?” IS, by and large, How to Dress Well’s biggest departure from the strain of rhythm and blues he helped popularize, while not wholly turning its back on what made his music so compelling in the first place. There’s a sharpness to these recordings lacking on his previous efforts, almost as if he’s finally gained the confidence to truly be heard.”

ESSENTIAL: “Repeat Pleasure”, “Words I Don’t Remember”, “Childhood Faith In Love (Everything Must Change, Everything Must Stay the Same)”

2. St. Vincent, St. Vincent

WHEN SHE SINGS, “SO I PRAY to all, all, all, all, all / To make me a real girl,” on song of the year contender “Prince Johnny,” there’s a real, living, breathing person laying bare for all to see. And that’s the case throughout St. Vincent. We’re finally starting to scratch the surface of what exactly St. Vincent can be. It’s bigger and better than anyone could ever imagine.”

ESSENTIAL: “Prince Jonny”, “Psychopath”, “Severed Crossed Fingers”

1. The War on Drugs, Lost in the Dream

IT’S HARD (BUT FUN) TO IMAGINE an album topping Lost in the Dream in 2014. Hard, because Adam Granduciel, already responsible for the stellar 2011 album Slave Ambient, pushes The War on Drugs to new heights, beginning with the stellar “Under the Pressure” and going all the way to the rallying cry “In Reverse”. And fun, because who wouldn’t want an album as fantastic as Lost in the Dream? I’ll be okay with either reality.

ESSENTIAL: “Under the Pressure”, “Red Eyes”, “An Ocean In Between the Waves”



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