Top 13 2014

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2014 was an unprecedented year for alternative music. I can’t say I’ve ever seen more high-profile indie releases in a single trip around the sun. Even Rancid put out a new record, and it was really good, which is crazy. But when so many good records come out, it makes the end of the year list even harder, so instead of choosing just 10, I went with 13, because there’s no one to tell me not to.

Epitaph Records and Tiny Engines Records came up big for me this year, Epitaph having put out new material from The Lawrence Arms, Every Time I Die, Joyce Manor, Pianos Become the Teeth, and The Menzingers. Tiny Engines, who I was only familiar with because they put out the first Restorations LP, hijacked my year with The Hotelier and fantastic debuts from Somos and Cayetana. Several bands came back from the grave and released not just acceptable, but even better music (looking at you, Death From Above 1979, Lagwagon, and Rancid).

2015 already seems to have big things in store – like Fear Before and Crime In Stereo being back together – and it looks like 2014 may be given a run for its money. Hardcore gods Blacklisted are releasing “When People Grow, People Go” on February 10th, Murder By Death has “Big Dark Love” coming, mewithoutYou is ready to unleash LP6; there will most likely be new Brand New, Propagandhi, and The Bronx should be ready with “The Bronx V.” There’s 2 Drug Church records coming, 7 Sefense Defense Family releases, Defeater is recording, Converge is writing, and I’m not altogether convinced the recently reunited Blood Brothers aren’t writing as well. I’ve got high hopes that both John K. Samson (The Weakerthans) and Jason Shevchuk (None More Black) are writing, and I’m still waiting for Colour Revolt to come out of nowhere with a fresh masterpiece.

Now, without further ado…

13. ’68 – In Humor & Sadness

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“I’ve sung every song I know.

You’ll never know what it meant to me

that you came along and didn’t disagree.”

If I had it my way, The Chariot wouldn’t have called it a day with “One Wing,” but from its formidable ashes rose ’68, the new project from frontman/madman Josh Scogin. As a duo (Scogin on guitar and Michael McClellen on drums), ’68 made more noise in 2014 than most bands could dream to. As I write this, they’re in Istanbul gearing up for a short run of shows in Israel. Yeah, Israel. The music is still “stressful,” as Scogin has put it, and fans of his old band will find the same tenacity they’ve come to expect from him, but the record shines brightest the farther it diverges from The Chariot, such as in “e,” “n,” and “t” (respectively tracks 5, 7, and 9 – Scogin typically plays with track listings, this record’s song titles spelling out “Regret not.”) “In Humor & Sadness” is undoubtedly aggressive, but also incorporates melodic elements of grunge, blues, and garage rock, leaving me with no option but to call Josh Scogin the Jack White of hardcore. Watch the awesome video for “R” (Track 1) here.

12. Self Defense Family – Try Me

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“Simple folk need their love songs,

idiots love an anthem,

dinner bell for the dumb,

cattle-call for morons.”

Self Defense Family is not an easy band to describe. The group functions as an artistic collective rather than as a set team of members. There are mainstays, certainly, such as vocalist Patrick Kindlon, but not even he is guaranteed. It’s horrible to throw around the word “art,” but I’m admittedly horrible, and have no reservations in saying that Self Defense Family is more artistically engaging and, more importantly, challenging than any other group I could name, and “Try Me” is the band’s most difficult offering yet. It’s softer, more entrancing, and employs even more repetition than SDF followers have grown accustomed to. Kindlon is ready to push you more than ever, espousing sentiments like “I understand the pull of religion…when there’s a loss that won’t stop itching” and “All the dumb cunts, they get what they want.” This is all not to mention that “Try Me” is tied to the personal history of porn star Jeanna Fine. Nearly 40 minutes of the record is comprised of an interview with her split into 2 tracks, “Angelique One” & “Angelique Two”. Hearing her story from her own mouth, her life’s course – essentially hearing her humanity – is more than just an experiment or a gimmick. Kindlon writes in the record’s liner notes, “This album started by examining the seemingly small adolescent influences that shape my adult life. But it became something else. Angelique is more than an influence. Her story stands on its own, without any need for my filter. Enjoy or don’t.” Hear one of my favorite songs of the year, “Turn the Fan On,” here.

11. Andrew Jackson Jihad – Christmas Island

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“The older I get, the better I am at lying,

the more friends & family I have dead or dying,

it’s harder to define love – I gotta drink more if I wanna catch a buzz –

the older I get, the more articulate I am at whining.”

This record was a pleasant surprise. I’ve been a casual fan of Andrew Jackson Jihad since 2007’s “People That Can Eat People Are the Luckiest People in the World,” but they’ve never truly dominated my listening. Producer John Congleton took AJJ’s typically acoustic folk-punk and fed it through an indie-rock filter, yielding a sound not unlike a poppy Neutral Milk Hotel. The songs that make up “Christmas Island” find lyricist Sean Bonnette as clever, weird, and personal as ever, full of their usual social commentary (“I’m a hologram of a tanning booth in a history class from the future”) and quirkiness (“We’ll set it off like Microsoft in ‘94”). Andrew Jackson Jihad has the uncanny ability to induce both laughter (“Hey, dude, I hate everything you do, but I’m trying really hard to not hate you”) and tears (“How can I live without ever knowing the beauty of forgiveness?”), sometimes even in the same song. I beg of you to listen to the best song of 2014, “Linda Ronstadt,” here.

10. Swingin’ Utters – Fistful of Hollow

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“You’re gonna tire of the tragic

and curse every night you’re alone for the ride.

You’ve been embracing the silence,

the solitude’s been a ruse, and now you’re wise.”

I really don’t understand how they do it. In 1998, Swingin’ Utters’ “Five Lessons Learned” was my first real punk record. In 2003, they released “Dead Flowers, Bottles, Bluegrass, & Bones,” which is still one of my all-time favorite records. Then, they disappear for 8 years, come back out of the blue in 2011 with the highly enjoyable “Here, Under Protest,” put out “Poorly Formed” last year (was my #2 of 2013), and BAM! Another record already. These guys are their own genre at this point. Claiming collaboration and encouragement toward all members to write songs as the reasons for their recent prolificacy, these Santa Cruz street-punk savants are able to demonstrate an unrivaled amount of freshness and enthusiasm for such a long-established band. They have certainly evolved beyond “punk,” and so it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what the Utters sound like, especially considering how much variety can be found on each record. This one has 15 songs, and every single one deserves its place. Even though they formed in 1987, “Fistful of Hollow” has some of the best Swingin’ Utters songs ever (“Spanish,” “Tibetan Book of the Damned,” and “Tonight’s Moons”), and is therefore a great place to start if you’re feeling daunted. I couldn’t recommend them more. Listen to “Spanish” here and let Johnny Bonnel’s gravelly melodies swoon you with red wine and Catholic guilt.

9. RX Bandits – Gemini, Her Majesty

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“You wanna be the storm, then be the storm.”

When I contributed to RX Bandits’ Kickstarter to fund this record, I had remarkably low expectations. After being more or less unaffected by their previous, “Mandala” (save for it being recorded live), and their subsequent disbanding, I had little to no interest in this “reunion” record, and supporting it was mostly a loyalty move. I’m not sure I’ve ever been more wrong about a record, seeing as “Gemini, Her Majesty” may have dethroned “The Resignation” as my favorite Bandits record. When it came out, I made a comment likening it to a Maroon 5 record written and performed by The Mars Volta – an absurd simplification, of course, and yet, still entirely apt. “Gemini” exhibits an older, wiser Bandits. The songs are refreshingly structured and distinct, but without sacrificing the band’s high level of technical ability. They maintain their signature jamminess, but successfully avoid aimlessness. The typical RX genres are explored (prog, psychedelic, roots, rock, blues) but they are streamlined, tightened, and more digestible than ever. I actively anticipate each song (something I can’t say about a few older RX records), and my word, are they catchy. If mainstream radio weren’t in a constant state of crisis, this song would be huge. You can’t deny it.

8. The Lawrence Arms – Metropole

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“Yesterday, I woke up to find

the black in my beard had turned to white,

and the pretty girls that used to smile at me

just stared off straight ahead

or looked down at their feet.”

Even though it’d been 8 years since their last full-length (2006’s rollicking “Oh! Calcutta!”), I knew my favorite band wouldn’t let me down. “Metropole” brings us an older, more reserved Lawrence Arms, with warmer tones and timbres reminiscent of their seminal slow-burner “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” Dual vocalists Brendan Kelly (rough) and Chris McCaughan (smooth) find themselves coping with age and their place in an ever-escaping world, yearning for the comfort they once had. Each does so in his expected way – Brendan with piss & vinegar, and Chris with his trademark literary dreaminess. The songs are tied together with actual live recordings of Chicago street performers that fill out and add character to what may be the best Lawrence Arms record to date. Watch 3 lifelong best friends have a blast in this video for “Seventeener (17th and 37th).”

7. Fucked Up – Glass Boys

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“The records we used to play still hum, still vibrate.

The frequency decays, but the fidelity remains.”

Fucked Up is the arthouse act of hardcore. They’re just as likely to release a 2-minute barrage of yelling as they are a 15-minute three-guitar soundscape featuring spoken word from indie director Jim Jarmusch (they have). While the band’s previous LP, “David Comes to Life” – an 18-track rock opera set in 1970s England – will probably go down as their magnum opus, it is inarguably dense. “Glass Boys” is anything but. At just 10 tracks, all between 3 and 6 minutes long, the record feels like the most focused Fucked Up has ever been. Although I love when bassist Sandy Marina lends her voice to the mix, she is much less present on this release, leaving frontman Damian Abraham to wrestle with some interesting growing pains, with much of the lyrical content struggling to reconcile his aversion to the mainstream with the growing popularity of his band. Hear for yourself how interestingly Fucked Up blends the bright and brutal here on “Sun Glass.”

6. Pianos Become the Teeth – Keep You

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“Whatever keeps your heart right.

Whatever keeps you is alright by me.”

When a (relatively) established band undergoes a major sonic overhaul, two things can happen: (1) everyone gets nervous and/or angry; or (2) everyone overhypes things into the stratosphere. When it became evident that Pianos Become the Teeth were all but abandoning aggressive vocals (what simpletons would call “screaming”), the latter occurred. Luckily, “Keep You” met the lofty expectations and proved to be one of 2014’s best listening experiences. The content is still focused on vocalist Kyle Durfey’s dealings with the passing of his father, but fortunately the subject is a positive means of inspiration for some hauntingly redemptive material. His newfound wavering singing style is incredibly endearing, and his willingness to bare himself personally (hell, even his father’s burial plot location and number) is both inspiring and refreshing. The band’s previous record, “The Lack Long After,” tackled the same material, and considering the dramatic softening in sound, it’s as if “Keep You” is a companion piece, the flip-side of the same coin, so to speak. I’ll spare you my theories regarding the similarities in the records’ cover artwork (“The Lack Long After” featuring passive feet; “Keep You,” active hands), and urge you to watch this stunning video for the emotional “Repine,” here.

5. Every Time I Die – From Parts Unknown

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“Love is the way.

Love is the only way.

Love is the only way out.”

What is there to say about Every Time I Die’s most brutal, blistering record to date? That it’s another milestone in a near-flawless discography? That going with Kurt Ballou of Coverge as producer was the best decision they’ve ever made? That these are some of the best drums and vocals I’ve ever heard on a heavy record? Yes. All of these things, and then some. Just keep shoveling the accolades on top. While vocalist Keith Buckley has never shied away from personal lyrics, “From Parts Unknown” finds him relinquishing a few of his old tricks in favor of a more straightforward approach, making this record their most progressive to date. For more on this opus, check out my full review HERE, and to be pummeled with magnificence, check out the NSFW video for “Decayin’ With the Boys” here.

4. Joyce Manor – Never Hungover Again

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“Don’t say goodbye,

say you’re not sure anything could ever come between the two of us,

and I would say the same thing.”

Joyce Manor is another band I was indifferent toward until 2014. I enjoyed their first self-titled record, but not enough to care too much. My interest piqued a bit when Epitaph picked them up, and then…I heard “Catalina Fight Song.” I can’t say much more than I already did in my review, but I will say that this will go down as my of my all-time favorite pop-punk records, on par with Say Anything’s “…is a Real Boy.” Joyce Manor’s short song formula succeeds in making the listener always want more, and the fun the band had recording it (live) shines through. It’s the ultimate summer record, and just so happens to perfectly encapsulate mid-20s angst and the general malaise of aging. Treat yourself to “Catalina Fight Song” if you haven’t yet.

3. The Hotelier – Home, Like Noplace is There

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“So why don’t you come with me?

We’ve got acres with streams,

we won’t keep you in cages, or make you beg for your treats,

we won’t tell you to heel, though you might need some time

to dig up those old bones your young self left behind.”

Out of this god-forsaken “emo revival” actually came a timeless record in the form of The Hotelier’s “Home, Like Noplace is There.” While I neither respect nor invest myself in this “revival,” I can’t deny that had this record come out in the heyday of the genre, it would be regarded with the same respect as Taking Back Suday’s “Tell All Your Friends” or Brand New’s “Deja Entendu.” Yup, that good. Rarely do you see such unanimous acclaim, and even more rarely do you see me agree with it (I am, for those that don’t know, quite grumpy). “Home, Like Noplace is There” does everything right. At 9 songs, it doesn’t overstay its welcome. Unlike most of their peers, The Hotelier wrote a remarkably varied record, each song sounding little like the next. One is just over 2 minutes, another is nearly 6. The lyrics are some of the year’s best, but it’s bassist/vocalist Christian Holden’s impassioned delivery that makes the record. Be sure to check out its staggering opening, which quite literally draws “the curtain” on a truly moving listening experience. Now, a full record that sounds like “Life in Drag,” please!

2. Weatherbox – Flies in All DirectionsWB_Cover650_1024x1024

“And I receive a deleted memory of you and me,

on the run from a team of sickening police forever.

We used to have such fun together.

Do you remember?”

The record that almost wasn’t. Or at least it seemed that way. After the frustrating release of Weatherbox’s second LP, “The Cosmic Drama,” constant delays and various production woes were hell-bent on not letting ‘Weatherbox 3’ happen. Thanks to support from Triple Crown Records, “Flies in All Directions” was handled correctly and finally came to fruition, and is it a doozy. Brian Warren (Weatherbox’s main component) is an entirely unique songwriter, and witnessing his progression has been fascinating. This record is everything Weatherbox fans knew Warren to be capable of. It’s a pop-rock masterpiece and there’s a brilliant lyric at every turn. For details of how “Flies in All Directions” is strung together in a pseudo-narrative, read my full review HERE, but for now we’ll just say that this record is more meta than an episode of Community. Check out the insanely catchy/clever “Radio Hive” here.

1. Trophy Scars – Holy Vacants

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“Killing angels right, one by one,

eating marrow and drinking blood,

and though it seems like so much fun,

my mouth is itchy from their holy tongues.”

I won’t rest until Trophy Scars is revered to my satisfaction. The talent this band exhumes is unmatched. The technical ability they display while shamelessly weaving in and out of genres from blues to psychedelic to gospel is, quite frankly, astounding. A concept record following the Bonnie & Clyde-like escapades of two eternally doomed lovers – “Holy Vacants” is a rollercoaster, both sonically and emotionally (for more on the story and its themes, check out my full review HERE). I was worried about a new Trophy Scars LP being a little hard to digest, but every song is so unique and intricately fleshed out with pianos, horns, organs, female backup singers, and the best guest appearance of the year in the form of Adam Fisher (Fear Before, All Human) as a twisted, haunting spectre, that the listener is constantly called to attention. Once again, I implore you to watch the video for “Archangel” here.

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