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The Best Indie Rock Albums of 2014 (So Far...)

by Jason St. Amand
National News Editor
Monday May 19, 2014

Coming off the disco/funk revival high that was 2013 felt like the final nail in the coffin for rock music. The pop landscape is full of empowering strong divas, R&B crooners and captivating rappers who aim to make club-ready tunes that can also function at wedding receptions. There is very little room for "serious" rock anymore, save for the limp commercial-ready singles by bands that won't be remembered in five years (currently occupied by Bastille and their single "Pompeii").

Even on the alternative front, where charts don't matter, rock and indie rock has seen better days. The "the" bands of the early 2000s are long gone -- the Strokes, the Hives and the White Stripes are nothing more than a fading reminder of how rock music once served as something people actually got excited about. A systematic shift has taken place over the last 14 years, with audiences finding themselves pulled into electro, pop and dance music.

That was until 2014 rolled around. It may be hard to believe, but guitar-based music is making a surprising comeback in quarter one. A handful of indie rock albums stand above high-profile efforts by artists you would expect to take over, including Pharrell -- who pretty much owned 2013 with "Get Lucky," "Happy," "Blurred Lines" -- Kylie Minogue, Skrillex and others.

As Evan Eisenberg wrote in his epic 1987 tome The Recording Angel, "The record listener is a child of the supermarket." So we've rounded up some of the best rock records of 2014 for you.

Beck - Morning Phase

Beck is one of the most innovative artists of the last 50 years, constantly transforming and shifting to a new genre with each record, while remaining cohesive and charming. Once known as the ultimate ’90s weirdo "Loser" slacker, Beck is now a 43-year-old father of two and easing into midlife. After turning out a number of groundbreaking albums ranging from funk, Tropoicália, rap and dance, it’s understanding that his 12th studio album, Morning Phase, goes down like a smooth cup of coffee. Beck teams up with collaborators who worked on his critically acclaimed 2002 record Sea Change, which presented depressing singer-songwriter folk rock behind the backdrop of a lush soundscape inspired by French jazz great Serge Gainsbourg’s magnum opus, Histoire de Melody Nelson. This time around, however, Beck strips things back even further and leaves nothing but the bare bones of his best indie rock flavor. The tracks on Morning Phase mirror Sea Change (the openers on each LP sound like twins separated at birth) but stand on their own, like the booming single "Blue Moon," the crippling ambient "Wave" and the soulful "Blackbird Chain."

Mac DeMarco - Salad Days

Mac DeMarco, 23, is indie rock’s class clown (so much that he even has his own video game, where the player can squish bugs with cigarettes). Do a Google image search, and you’ll find an endless stream of outrageous photos of the Canadian singer. Check out some interview clips on YouTube and you’ll want him to be your best friend. On his sophomore effort, Salad Days, DeMarco buttons up a bit, at least when compared to his breakout debut 2, and while most of his songs sound lighthearted DeMarco, a look at the lyrics show he’s matured. Right off the bat, on the album’s self-titled opener, DeMarco sings, "As I’m getting older, chip up on my shoulder / Rolling through life, to roll over and die." On the sleepy "Blue Boy," DeMarco sounds like he’s giving himself some sage advice: "Blue boy, older than the world knows ... No use on acting so tough / Come down, sweetheart, grow up." But Mac isn’t a total downer on the hazy Salad Days. "Let Her Go" is a blissful pop song with laid-back guitars. DeMarco coos on "Let My Baby Stay" and worries about his Canadian girlfriend getting deported. Salad Days is a confident record that boasts some of DeMarco’s best songwriting and his best guitar work.

Sun Kil Moon - Benji

Mark Kozelek’s folk rock project Sun Kil Moon has been going strong since 2002, but his latest record, Benji, is the singer’s strongest piece of music. It feels more like a film than it does an album, as Kozelek’s dairy-like style of writing and his straightforward singing weave incredibly touching and personal stories. On the opener "Carissa," Kozelek sings, in his deeply haunting trademark voice, about the death of his second cousin: "Carissa burned to death last night in a freak accident fire / In her yard in Brewster her daughter came home from a party and found her." "I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love" is a beautiful ode to his mom, where he plays out the scenario of her death, and how he will cope without her. On "Pray for Newtown" Kozelek sings about the massacres he’s witnessed over his 47 years, including the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting: "I ain’t one to pray, but I’m one to sing and play / For women and children and moms and dads and brothers and sisters and uncles and aunts ... So when Christmas comes and you’re out running around / Take a moment to pause and think of the kids who died in Newtown." Someone dies in every song on Benji, even on the silly but lush "Ben’s My Friend." And while Kozelek’s sixth LP as Sun Kil Moon is often depressing, the journey is moving, giving you a small view into the life of indie rock’s most interesting man.

Real Estate - Atlas

Real Estate is a New Jersey-based indie rock band that spins some of the most laid-back guitar music you’ll ever hear. And their third LP, Atlas, isn’t too much of a departure from their near-perfect sophomore effort, Days. Their tunes guide listeners to regress into their nostalgic fading memories of a pre-Internet childhood, where spending the day walking along abandoned train tracks or along the white fences of cookie-cutter houses was a daily routine. On Atlas things are more urgent, as the members of the band step into full-time adulthood (lead singer Martin Mondanile is a new father). Many Real Estate fans are also heading into their 30s, realizing they’ll never accomplish their hard-to-reach childhood dreams and now hoping they’ll be able to work for another 30 years to have enough to retire. "Had to Hear" finds Mondanile lackadaisically singing: "I’m out again on my own / A reflection in the chrome / Of an adding machine / It’s been so long." "Talking Backwards," one of Real Estate’s best tracks, deals with two people drifting apart in a relationship, and "Crime" really hits hard for any angsty millennial: "I don’t wanna die / Lonely and uptight / Stay with me / All will be revealed."

The War on Drugs - Lost in the Dream

What do you get when you mix Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne? The supergroup the Traveling Wilburys. Throw in Bruce Springsteen and - voilĂ ! - the War on Drugs’ third LP, Lost in a Dream. The Philly rock band, lead by Adam Granduciel, defies odds in 2014 and makes a classic rock-inspired record not only interesting to audiences who don’t normally dabble in the genre, but also addicting. Lead single "Red Eyes" rolls with sprawling guitars, and Granduciel does his best take on Springsteen, even adding spontaneous "yelps" that hit just right. "Under Pressure" blends Tom Petty, Dylan vocals and even a little Paul Simon into a thrilling jam session. But Lost in the Dream’s centerpieces are "Eyes to the Wind" and "Burning." Both tracks feel immediate and organic, guaranteeing to raise the hairs on your neck. Each cut on Lost in the Dream is colossal -- everything from the ambient interludes to the booming five-minute-plus tracks sounds like Granduciel and Co. put every last effort they had into making this record, not wasting any chord change or string pluck, as if this collection of tunes was rock’s last hope.

Pure X - Angel

Pure X is three records deep, releasing their first fuzzed-out LP Pleasure in 2011. In April, the Austin band dropped Angel -- a clear and crisp-sounding record that finds the group stirring together a pot of shoegaze, glam rock and ’90s jam band. Single "Starlight" is a gem that swirls with blissed-out guitars and heavenly vocals that hang just above the mix. "Valley of Tears" is unexpectedly groovy and dances between a disco song and a T. Rex B-side. "Heaven" is an emotional toe-tapper while "White Roses" and "Rain" slow things down with heavily soaked reverbed vocals and a wall of dreamy guitars. Pure X’s mellow songs on Angel are charming and reveal themselves over multiple listens. It’s the band’s poppiest album yet, but still homes in on a moody and intimate atmosphere that set them apart from contemporaries.

St. Vincent - St. Vincent

Who said women can’t rock? For her fourth studio album, St. Vincent, art rocker Annie Clark, who performs under the moniker St. Vincent, shows off her brain-melting guitar skills while detailing the paranoia of social media and the Internet. Ever get sucked into a Tumblr or YouTube k-hole, spending hours perusing mindless GIFs and inane video clips until the wee hours of the morning? Clark sings about that experience on "Huey Newtown," which erupts into one of Clark’s most intense guitar solos. On single "Birth in Reverse," Clark works a prickly percussion and violent guitar licks while freaking out about going through a daily mind-numbing routine: "Oh, what an ordinary day / Take out the garbage, masturbate." "Digital Witness" sparkles with a horn section, taking cues from her 2012 collaborative effort with David Byrne, but the upbeat funk track is pretty creepy as Clark explores the millennia’s habit of over sharing status, tweets and selfies. St. Vincent is a bleak, weird and confrontational record, headed by Clark’s god-like guitar prowess, her Dior vocals and her brilliant songwriting.


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