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Daily Bruin A&E looks back at some of the most memorable albums of 2014

By Brendan Hornbostel, Kristy Pirone, Rebecca Sarvady, Alisha Kapur, Savannah Tate, Gail Acosta, Aalhad Patankar, Nick LaRosa, and Emily McCormick

Dec. 30, 2014 8:31 p.m.

The new year means new beginnings, new experiences and of course, new releases of music. In anticipation for the exciting never-before-heard music that lies ahead in 2015, Daily Bruin A&E; reporters look back at some of the memorable albums that have left a mark on music in 2014.

“In the Lonely Hour” by Sam Smith

(Capitol Records)

This year, Sam Smith had the voice heard around the world as his hit single “Stay With Me” invaded car radios and Spotify playlists. Simultaneously, his collaboration with Disclosure, “Latch,” hit a second – or third – wave of popularity over the summer, making Smith a household name. On the heels of his newfound American popularity, the British soul sensation released his debut studio album “In the Lonely Hour” in May, a tour de force of artistic ability that highlighted Smith’s impressive range both vocally and emotionally.

“In the Lonely Hour” has been criticized for a lack of musical risk-taking, with Smith’s voice carrying the LP and featuring a number of power-ballads in the vein of Adele’s “Someone Like You.” Still, there are distinctive gems scattered throughout the album, including “Like I Can,” that show a strong, diverse future in R&B; for Smith, and the upbeat opening track “Money On My Mind” could make even Smith’s harshest detractors bust a move.

The Grammy-nominated album for “Album of the Year” and “Best Pop Vocal Album” shows potential for musical evolution in Smith, and it presents him as this year’s most exciting breakout star.

– Kristy Pirone, A&E; contributor

“The Balcony” by Catfish and the Bottlemen

(Island Records)

Up-and-coming Welsh rock band Catfish and the Bottlemen has brought back garage rock with the release of its debut album, “The Balcony.” Seizing the attention of rock fans with their high energy, angsty crooning and explosive drumming, the band has displayed a consistently aggressive sound that fans of indie rock bands such as The Strokes and The Killers can eat up.

The band provides a fresh, bolder flavor to the more recently mellow indie rock scene with its singles “Kathleen” and “Homesick.” Lead singer Ryan Van McCann delivers intensity in a manner that meshes well with the drum and guitar heavy melodies, complimenting the tension of young love and the essence of hook-up culture woven through the lyrics.

The group’s upcoming American tour in February and its presence on the Guardian’s “New Band of The Week” series suggests that Catfish and the Bottlemen will achieve greater popularity in the coming year. It’s clear that Catfish and the Bottlemen require greater lyrical maturity and expansion of sound in order to reach their potential, but as a lover of the garage rock sound yearning for new material to rock out to, “The Balcony” satisfied the craving.

– Emaan Baqai, A&E; contributor

“Dream Your Life Away” by Vance Joy

(Liberation Music)

Most Americans first heard Vance Joy on his song “Riptide,” a single from the Australian singer-songwriter’s debut studio album, “Dream Your Life Away.” The album has a familiar feel, but Joy obviously has a few more tricks up his sleeve than his indie folk musician predecessors. Joy’s take on the genre, which incorporates lots of clapping and vivid imagery, makes for a collection of songs that is almost impossible to not sing along with.

Since Joy’s songs feature sparse instrumentation – he rarely uses more than a guitar and some vocal harmonies – his lyrics make or break his songs. They often seem obscure, such as the lines “Hold me up to the light/ Tell me if the sun comes shining through” and “Lay my dreams down at your feet/ Baby, watch out where you step” from “Who Am I,” but they always paint a vivid picture. Even songs that focus on heartbreak or the fear of heartbreak have hopeful harmonies, such as “Wasted Time,” which starts out slowly and picks up, almost like a sunrise.

Joy’s simple instrumentation showcases his voice, which boasts a smooth and impressive range. He often goes into falsetto for the more emotional parts of his songs, such as those in “Red Eye,” but this switch never feels awkward. He follows in the footsteps of Mumford & Sons, Jason Mraz and John Mayer, but Joy proves himself to be more than just a charming crooner; he is a talented poet and an impressive vocalist.

Alisha Kapur, A&E; contributor

“LP1” by FKA twigs

(Young Turks)

In stark contrast to the established divas like Beyoncé and Ariana Grande who laid down power ballads and pop chart toppers this year, FKA twigs rose to the top in 2014 singing a different tune. Her debut album “LP1” combines hushed, unostentatious vocals, heavily synthesized electronic instruments and syncopated beats to create a sound that can only be defined as a fusion of R&B;, electronic and alternative indie music.

“LP1” is hypnotic, proving that it doesn’t take a huge sound to make a statement. In fact, most of twigs’ lyrics are sung at a frequency no louder than a whisper, adding an evocative sense of intimacy to songs like “Lights On” and “Closer.” When she does switch to her shimmering, birdlike high notes, as in the chorus of “Pendulum,” the effect is spine-tingling.

Themes of love and sensuality are sung again and again throughout “LP1,” but originality was clearly not twigs’ main concern. Instead, the brilliance of the album comes in the form of twigs’ skillful synthesizing of voice and noise, creating a nuanced and fresh experience of sound.

Emily McCormick, A&E; contributor

“Run the Jewels 2” by Killer Mike and El-P

(Mass Appeal Records)

Nine seconds into the first track of sophomore collaboration “Run the Jewels 2,” Killer Mike declares his and rapper El-P’s intention: to capture the spirits of the times; to be a truthful reflection of what they feel to be America as it is. While only time will tell if the album will mark the apex of the rappers’ careers, to say as much would in no way be an insult. What the album is, lyrically and in terms of composition, and even the means by which it was distributed, perfectly mirrors what music has become in 2014.

“Run the Jewels 2” is a whirlwind of gleefully rage-infused braggadocio, philosophy and violent imagery, sweeping across a landscape of El-P’s exquisitely dark production. The duo’s goal doesn’t seem to be to tear just the house down, but the whole neighborhood and maybe the country. The album was there to document 2014 in verse, with commentary on everything from the Donald Sterling scandal in “Lie, Cheat, Steal,” an untrustworthy media in “Blockbuster Night Pt. 1” and themes of police brutality in songs such as “Early ft. Boots.”

Mike and El-P function as journalists. While its air of defiance extends far beyond the political realm, the album marks one of those rare moments when art seems to precede its own true context, and for this reason it belongs near, if not at the top of any list of the best music of 2014.

– Nick LaRosa, A&E; contributor

“Salad Days” by Mac DeMarco

(Captured Tracks)

If not the best album of the year, Mac DeMarco’s “Salad Days” is certainly the most aptly named. It is the album of the yesteryear, a retired ode to long gone salad days. Against the backdrop of rebellion, anxiety and political charge that has shaped much of 2014’s musical landscape, the off-beat Canadian songwriter offers a perfect detachment; the soundtrack of a lazy daydream that lets the mind wander down memory lane.

The record’s charm lies in how at peace it is, free of the tension and ambitious energy that rock so frequently relies on. The album opens with a line that serves as its mantra: “As I’m getting older, chip up on my shoulder/ Rolling through life, to roll over and die.” For the next 30 minutes, a soothing stream of consciousness takes over as each track transitions seamlessly from one single to the next, one memory to another. “Blue Boy” is a playful journey to adolescence with a boy gravely worried about his haircut, while “Let Her Go” and “Brother” venture into the melancholy territories of lost love and bad decisions.

It’s hard to categorize DeMarco’s sound: a youthful, shiftless voice overlaying jangly guitar melodies. It can be called stoner rock, slacker rock, jangle pop but perhaps bedtime rock is most accurate as “Salad Days” is a series of bittersweet lullabies that are heartfelt and immersive. If nothing else, DeMarco’s sophomore effort serves as a reminder of just how powerful a hit of nostalgia can be.

– Aalhad Patankar, A&E; senior staff

“Transgender Dysphoria Blues” by Against Me!

(Xtra Mile Recordings)

2014 was a landmark year for the Florida punk rock band Against Me!: The band released its sixth studio album, “Transgender Dysphoria Blues,” with frontwoman Laura Jane Grace delivering her coming-out address as a transgender woman. The punk rock ethos that fueled the band’s 2002 debut, “Against Me! is Reinventing Axl Rose,” remains strong in Grace’s 10-track exposé of her transformation from the fist-fighting anarchist Tom Gabel to the same reckless and rebellious Grace on the new album.

With the lead single “True Trans Soul Rebel” as the album’s flag-bearer, “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” packs a life of gender dysphoria angst into Grace’s vocals and guitar licks. Grace and her band don’t leave behind the music that has driven their career, but, instead, use their thrashing guitars and diatribe lyrics to present a haunting first- and third-person account of Grace’s struggles.

The album is compelling and heartfelt, holding nothing back on tracks “True Trans Soul Rebel” and “Black Me Out” to form a tender and resilient portrayal of human emotion that breaks new ground in what punk rock music is capable of.

– Brendan Hornbostel, A&E; senior staff

“Burn Your Fire For No Witness” by Angel Olsen


Singer-songwriter Angel Olsen is finally receiving some well-deserved attention for her captivating and heartfelt sound. Just about every alternative music news source – CMJ, Paste Magazine, Pitchfork – lists Olsen’s second album, and first with a full band, “Burn Your Fire For No Witness,” as one of the top albums of 2014. The indie folk/rock album’s success is not a result of a formulaic, over-wrought polished body of music. Rather, it is due to the work’s hodgepodge collection of songs containing great anger, sadness and well-timed drum fills that seem to emerge straight from Olsen’s mind.

Olsen, whose tonal quality is often compared to that of Joni Mitchell’s, utilizes every facet of her voice, from her delicate falsetto to her soulful low notes. She ranges from mournful in the soft-spoken, acoustic “Enemy,” to playful in the loud and catchy “Hi-Five.” Whether she is singing in a haunting tone or with a spirited electric guitar, Olsen unapologetically relays intense feelings of heartbreak, remorse and the difficulties that come with change. Her lyrics are often structurally simple but beautifully poetic; In “Dance Slow Decades” she croons: “I can hear you crying and I am crying, too/ The world might be lying, but so are you.”

Olsen maintains a melancholic tone without depressing the listener. Instead, her jarring body of work leaves them with an appreciation for honest songwriters and music that evokes emotion. In her powerful sophomore release, Olsen has set a new standard for meaningful music in the indie-rock world.

– Rebecca Sarvady, A&E; contributor

“This is All Yours” by alt-J

(Infectious Records)

After the mega-success of its debut “An Awesome Wave,” British group alt-J returned in September with a strong follow-up record that boasts a complex electro-pop sound worthy of the band’s techy name. “This is All Yours” runs the gamut of instrumentation, from thundering synthesized beats to delicate orchestration. Dubbed the new Radiohead by various critics, alt-J also experiments with samples in certain tracks – perhaps the most notable being Miley Cyrus’s “4×4” in “Hunger of the Pine.”

Lead singer Joe Newman provides additional depth with occasional French lyrics and others brimming with beautiful imagery and obscure pop culture references. At times the lyrics become downright odd. In “Every Other Freckle,” Newman tells his lover that he wants to “Turn you inside out/ And lick you like a crisp packet” before pleading, “Oh/ Devour me.”

Oddness aside, the record offers enchanting melodies that span multiple songs such as the three part “Arrival in Nara,” “Nara” and “Leaving Nara.” “This is All Yours” may not be as danceable as “An Awesome Wave,” but its moody atmosphere and layered textures make for one of the standout albums of 2014.

– Savannah Tate, A&E; contributor

“Tough Love” by Jessie Ware

(Island Records)

There is no doubt that Jessie Ware’s “Tough Love” added to 2014’s plethora of emotional music by artists such as Sam Smith. But by amping up the feeling of rawness and confidence, the British singer-songwriter avoids being cliché. Painted with colors of R&B;, soul and pop, the album’s dynamic realm strings together sounds of atmospheric passion and shimmering bliss.

In each song, Ware never steers away from yearning for love, but she rarely sounds desperate. Her lyrics carry an attitude of defiance – a trait lacking from her debut album “Devotion.” From the title track where Ware demands, “Have you figured out all you wanted, have you?” to the concluding song “Desire” where she belts out, “Take me as I am,” Ware sings with intimate prowess. “Tough Love” is an album to realize self-worth after a bad break-up, unlike most others that prompt one to simply sulk.

Dubbed as the link between Adele, SBTRKT and Sade, Ware presented herself as one of the most promising music artists of 2014. If “Tough Love” is an indication of what to expect from her in the future, then her music is bound to find more listeners and ride the radio airwaves.

– Gail Acosta, A&E; senior staff

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Brendan Hornbostel
McCormick was the 2017-2018 Digital Managing Editor for the Daily Bruin. She was previously an assistant editor of the A&E section, overseeing the Music | Arts beat.
McCormick was the 2017-2018 Digital Managing Editor for the Daily Bruin. She was previously an assistant editor of the A&E section, overseeing the Music | Arts beat.
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