As 2014 comes to a close, KJHK’s sublime staff voted for their favorite albums of the year.
Around 30 staff members, each with varying roles at the station, submitted their top 10 lists. What follows is a list that reflects the diversity of the station and the dedicated staff that run it.
1.Mac DeMarco: Salad Days
There are very few musicians who I would travel 9 hours to see in concert but Mac DeMarco just happens to be one of them. I had the privilege of taking a road trip to Denver with some buds to see this wild child in action. As chill as Mac’s music is, the concert was anything but. The crowd proceeded to mosh, stage dive, and pulse with energy. It was both terrifying and wildly exciting. One of the highlights was when Mac himself dived in to the audience. I as well as my friends got to help guide his body to the side of the venue where he climbed up the second story balcony, interacted with some fans and then trust fell into the audience 20 feet below. It was insane. When the band came back out for an encore, Mac requested the entire audience to kneel as they played a cover of Neil Young’s “Unknown Legend”. “Kneel for Neil” he said and we all did. Except for the people in the balcony who Mac called out by saying “Oh, you people in the balcony think you’re too good to kneel, KNEEL down!” They obliged.
Understandably part of the appeal to Mac is his insane personality. Some people are simply intriguing to watch and he is a fantastic example of this. The strange part is that Mac doesn’t add anything particularly innovative to the chill singer songwriter category. What he brings is his own perspective. One that is creative, honest, addicting, and enthralling.
Salad Days immediately entrances you with the tracks “Salad Days”, “Blue Boy”, and “Brother” each one featuring lovely melodies and slightly melancholy vocals. Mac may not be the most talented guitarist in terms of shredding ability but he has a way of making the guitar truly speak. It doesn’t sound like anyone else. He manages to add so much personality to even the simplest of chord progressions. Just take “Goodbye Weekend” for example. That riff is insanely catchy.
There are no songs about brands of cigarettes here but sentimental lyrics about life. “Passing Out Pieces” and “Let Her Go” feature bits of heart felt advice and hint at an internal struggle. The love song on the album “Let My Baby Stay” shows just how vulnerable this maverick can be. The lyrics are honest and deeply moving.
My most listened to track of the year and quite possibly one of my all time favorite tracks is the mesmerizing “Chamber of Reflection”. I can’t even articulate how much I love this song. The combination of the eerie organ, groovy bass, kickin drums, psychedelic vibe of the melody on those stellar synths, and, of course, Mac’s crooning vocals get me every time.
The versatility of this album also speaks measures. It is accessible enough to enjoy after the first listen but deep enough to sustain repeat plays. A lot of us here at KJHK have an admiration for this album and the band who made it. I couldn’t possibly end this overview any better than how Mac ends the album. He made me an even bigger fan by breaking the fourth wall and saying “Hey guys, this is Mac. Thank you for joining me. See you again soon, B-Bye.” He’s a likable eccentric, what’s better than that?
– Emilie Stafford, Music Director and DJ
2. FKA Twigs: LP1
When Talilah Barnett (FKA Twigs) declared “F*** alternative R&B!” in a Guardian interview earlier this year, she wasn’t saying anything that her album hadn’t already. Her music touches on hip-hop, pop, electronic, and R&B without coming close to fitting neatly in any of those categories. Any hint of familiarity is quickly washed away in a sea of clicks, glitches, and off-tempo drumbeats. To compare her music, as many have before, to the likes of the Weeknd, James Blake, or Grimes, is to grasp for loose associations where none really exist.
I haven’t the slightest idea how Twigs managed to recruit some of the hottest producers in the game (Clams Casino, Devonté Hynes, and the mysterious Arca, among others) to lend a hand on her debut LP, but their involvement is a clear endorsement of her potential as an artist. Their work here, along with Twigs’ own production, is simply incredible. Even after months of repeated listens, this is an album that still sounds both exciting and unsettling. While the production deserves its share of acclaim, Twigs’ voice may just be the most impressive thing here. Its alternately powerful and timid, but it somehow holds the album together when the sonic weirdness is at its peak.
Despite Twigs’ growing popularity (and relationship with a Twilight star), it would be wrong to call her a celebrity. Between LP1 and the videos for “Lights On” and “Video Girl,” which are wonderfully bizarre and cannot be ignored when reviewing the year in music, FKA Twigs pulled off the incredible feat of tower above 2014’s music scene without ever really being in the limelight. If, like me, you’ve looking for an artist to watch over the next few years, your search might be over.
– Andy Miller, DJ and Music Staffer
3.Real Estate: Atlas
Real Estate has become a bit of an indie staple with their signature chill, sunny melodic driven indie rock. Their third album Atlas was definitely a crowd pleaser with its mature but fun sound. The band amped up it’s production but kept the same friendly vibe.
The album begins with the catchy “Had to Hear”. A track that features layers of blissed out guitars and a groove perfect for when you are hitting the road. My favorite track “Past Lives” features some sentimental lyrics, gorgeous instrumentation, a fantastic bass line, and a lovely dreamy melody. It even ends with a final strum of the last chord much like my all time favorite band. The single “Talking Backwards” has an infectious chorus that easily got stuck in everyone’s heads during the Spring. “The Bend” may be a track that was looked over upon the first listen or two but has a really cool vibe and jazzy beat. The end of this track even gets a bit psychedelic when the beat slows down and the guitar has some slight reverb.
“Crime” shows off Matt Mondanile’s knack for intriguing chord progressions, which are prevalent throughout the entire album. Another one of my favorites is “Primitive”, which features some sixties style melodies and an Americana feel. The lyrics “Don’t know where I want to be, but I’m glad that you’re with me” are sweet and simple. “Horizon” is upbeat and fun and keeping with the sunny atmosphere.
Real Estate visited our fine city of Lawrence in April as a part of last year’s concert series brought to you by KJHK and SUA. It was definitely a fun night of good vibes and laid back people.
This album is hard not to like. It’s a perfect warm weather, chill by the pool, swing in a hammock, nap in the shade kind of record. Whenever I put on Atlas I can’t help but smile. There is something comforting about it, like an old friend. A lot of us here at KJHK clearly have ties to Real Estate and Atlas in particular. With all the love we have for it, it’s no wonder it made it so high on our list. Hopefully are listeners are just as pleased as we are.
– Emilie Stafford, Music Director and DJ
4. The War On Drugs: Lost in the Dream
I’m standing under a web of overpasses deep inside a city. The visual appeal comes alongside a sad realization of how crowded we are in a society of strangers who could care less about the person one lane over. The War On Drugs’ Lost In The Dream strikes me as that realization, that sensation of getting older, held still, observed and expanded into a full-length album.
The overall sound is often suspenseful, and depending on the track, it could either level out into bleak uncertainty, or it could end in a rush of relief, like learning something from an initially terrifying situation. You’re finally getting over the hill and hurtling down the other side, where you’re rewarded with this sound of encouragement that hits you like Tom Petty or Lord Huron.
To be honest, I can’t say for sure why I like this album so much because I don’t get it yet. I can’t even understand what he is saying a lot of the time. I do know that I keep playing certain songs over and over.
“Under The Pressure” sounds like the common fear that we aren’t doing enough. It’s the anxiety that we aren’t using our time to the fullest, or in a way that could make us happier. Basically, it’s the fear that the grass is greener somewhere else, and here we are wasting time in a job we hate or a phase that feels over. And boom now you’re dead!
“Red Eyes” is one of those where I couldn’t tell you what he’s saying, but it doesn’t matter because the music alone gets in your bloodstream, especially if you saw them live here a while back. Infectious.
I’m reminded of Kurt Vile and Incubus by the wavering intensity of each instrument as each song plays. The gradual progression is somewhat therapeutic, elements of a track revealing themselves slowly, coming in waves. It’s calming and introspective, like Tycho. It feels like a step forward, then the relative lull that follows. The lull is good though, because it bridges the last step to the next, the one you’re just about to take.
– Jerod Barker, Production Director and DJ
5. Flying Lotus: You’re Dead!
Nephew to John and Alice Coltrane, Steven Ellison, also known as Flying Lotus, has returned with perhaps his most experimental album yet. His style has evolved exponentially since releases like 1984 and July Heat, which were monumental albums of the west coast beat scene from 2008 to 2011. With You’re Dead!, Flying Lotus has taken an unforgettable turn into aural madness.
When I first heard that Flying Lotus was going to release You’re Dead!, I was expecting an experimental album inspired by videogame soundtracks, sadistic cartoons, etc. However, I ended up with more than I could have possibly asked for. You’re Dead! is an inter-dimensional superstorm of synthetic hip-hop and jazz fusion that serves as an introspective investigation of life, death and the afterlife, and this idea is present in the overall structure of You’re Dead!. The fast, intense and complex compositions of the opening four tracks and Never Gonna Catch Me all grab your attention with your jaw dropped (and maybe your eyes rolling in the back of your head as you dance into oblivion). The first half of You’re Dead! is energetic, full of life, and subtly dark. As you let the futuristic, jazz-inspired opening tracks fill your mind, you already feel yourself wanting more. That’s when the album begins to die, but in a good way. Its soul doesn’t just go into emptiness. The tracks become even darker, more engaging, and easier to listen to as Flying Lotus brings you into his sonic afterlife.
In the second half of You’re Dead!, FlyLo manages to incorporate his past styles of obscure, gloomy, hypnotic hip-hop tracks that demand the listener’s head to nod to the beat, such as Coronus, The Terminator; Obligatory Cadence; and The Protest. However, his music production skills have perpetually heightened since 2006. This evolution of skills, as well as style, is unmistakable in the fullness and complexity throughout You’re Dead!, but especially in the second half of the album when comparing it to Flying Lotus’ early work. His success is also notable in the connections with other musicians he’s made in the past few years. The features and co-producers on this album are just icing on the beautifully organized deathcake.
You’re Dead! features verses from the likes of old-school and new-school hip-hop legends Snoop Dogg and Kendrick Lamar, respectively. Both Never Gonna Catch Me and Dead Man’s Tetris have lyrics, whose writers are already known for their abilities in creating deep, metaphoric and introspective songs, are filled with forebodingly poetic words of death, further expressing the fatal theme of the You’re Dead!. But the features don’t stop at well-known lyricists. Old school and new school collide yet again with the production features of Herbie Hancock and Thundercat throughout the album, making You’re Dead! absolutely groundbreaking in the vast realm of experimental electronic music, as well as jazz fusion.
Considering Flying Lotus’ background of simplistic, spacey, head-nodder style of his 2006 demo, July Heat and 1983, I’ve always seen Flying Lotus as the secret offspring or brother of J Dilla or something. The only thing that You’re Dead! leaves me with, other than amazement at how far Flying Lotus has come since those early releases, is what J Dilla would have sounded like if he could be around today. I’ve always subconsciously paired the two musicians together in my head. Something tells me that beat wizard J Dilla, with a style that has influenced Flying Lotus so much, would be making some incredible sounds similar to You’re Dead! today. But for now, Flying Lotus is the only musician in the game that could come from a beat-focused background and make something as strange and experimental as You’re Dead!, while still hitting the top of the yearly KJHK charts.
-Mitch Raznick, Live Music Director and DJ
6. Spoon: They Want My Soul
After releasing their album “Transference” in 2010, Spoon took a four year hiatus to rediscover themselves and regain the music making fire that had left their bellies. Each band member went their own separate way and focused on their own projects before getting back together in the recording booth in September of 2013. With the passion back in them and the desire just to have fun and play what they like, they set off in making “They Want My Soul”, one of my favorite albums of 2014 (and apparently a lot of other’s favorite as well).
The album starts off with an incredibly catchy rock riff and Britt Daniel reminding everyone how catchy and unique his vocals are in the opening track “Rent I Pay”. Spoon then transitions immediately from hard rock to the dream pop that is the track “Inside Out” (my personal favorite track off the album) and things almost seem to move in slow motion. It’s hard not to close your eyes and just imagine yourself floating in colors. With the soft piano in the background and the layering vocals, it’s easily one of the best songs off the album.
Other highlights from the album include the incredibly catchy “Do You” which was a popular choice amongst DJs here at the station. One of my other personal favorites was “Outlier”. I honestly wasn’t a huge fan of the track when I first heard the album, but after I saw them perform it live here in Lawrence, it hooked me. I’ve listened to it multiple times since then and I can’t figure out what it is about the track, whether it’s the haunting, dream inducing instrumentals, the perfectly timed harmonies, or just the fact they performed it in an amazing way live. Now while I am just pointing out the tracks that really stood out to me, the whole album is filled with quality tracks. There really isn’t a bad tracks on this album. Sure, some don’t stick out like others do, and none really expand the horizons or experiment too much with Spoon’s iconic sound, but they don’t have to. You don’t need to fix what isn’t broken, and often times when bands are having fun making music that they want to rather than try to experiment and break barriers, it ends up being a better album. If you haven’t checked this album out yet, you’re missing out, and I highly recommend checking it out right away and listening to one of the better albums of 2014.
-Tyler Daniels, DJ and Music Staffer
7. Cloud Nothings: Here and Nowhere Else
When Here and Nowhere Else starts spinning, a simple distorted guitar melody of four chords swells into energetic punk influenced noise. That sentence pretty much sums up the entire album.
Cloud Nothings began as an outlet for Dylan Baldi’s pent up angst and turned into an escape from the mundane. Baldi started his music career solo in a basement and came to release his fourth album, Here and Nowhere Else, with two additional members picked up somewhere along the way.
This album borders on post hardcore and lo fi noise pop while still remaining rather accessible. With its propulsive drumming, hard-hitting guitar melodies, and sick bass line, what’s not to love? Best of all, there is a noticeable progression throughout. Each song is connected and moves the album further instead of maintaining the same run of the mill song structures that many other pop punk bands do. The emotion is what really sets it aside from many of those bands. These guys rock their feelings well.
Growing up listening to 80s hardcore bands such as Black Flag, Hüsker Dü, and Minor Threat is part of what led to my interest in Cloud Nothings because, while Cloud Nothings maintain a modern approach to this sound, they are still deeply rooted and influenced by these bands. They are a throwback with something new to add, which can be rare in this genre.
Here and Nowhere Else is my top pick of 2014 because what started with one person’s passion for music born in a basement, led to a solid album that explores hook filled hardcore while remaining true to its lo fi beginnings.
-Rachel Bennett, Assistant Music Director and DJ
8. Freddie Gibbs & Madlib: Pinata
In January 2011, recording began on a project between Indiana native emcee Freddie Gibbs and DJ/producer extraordinaire Madlib. With over 30 years of collective experience in hip-hop, Gibbs and Madlib team up on Piñata with appearances from Danny Brown, Raekwon, Earl Sweatshirt, Ab-Soul, and more. Madlib, the self-proclaimed “DJ first, producer second, and MC last” is in charge of the instrumentals with Gibbs and friends taking care of the verses. The duo of Fredrick Tipton and Otis Jackson Jr., a.k.a MadGibbs, combine their styles of traditional hip-hop, soul, and funk instrumental cuts with bits lyrical wisdom about the struggle of growing up in the streets, overcoming obstacles in life, and money being the root of all evil. The 17-track work is a journey through it all and a look into the stories behind the lives of the men that made it. Piñata earned all the praise it received in 2014 and is just the latest installment in the illustrious career of Madlib with Freddie Gibbs as the co-pilot.
-Harrison Hipp, DJ and Music Staffer
9. St. Vincent: St. Vincent
St. Vincent’s 2014 self-titled album builds upon the sound of 2011’s Strange Mercy and pushes it forward into new sonic territories. Even the title of the album designates a sense of reinvention. By choosing to self-title the album, St. Vincent, otherwise known as Annie Clark, has made a statement that this is what she represents. She’s let the world know that she’s here to stay and won’t be leaving any time soon.
This album is a collection of some of Clark’s finest songwriting moments, incorporating everything from trip-hop on songs like “Prince Johnny” to funk on “Digital Witness.” The aforementioned “Digital Witness” is rooted in the brass style of music that she was making with David Byrne on 2012’s Love This Giant and refines it to create one of her catchiest and most danceable songs to date.
Fans of Clark’s guitar playing need not worry because there’s still plenty of that on display. Clark still shreds with the same ferocity as she always has. On this album, she utilizes her guitar playing in interesting ways and keeps the listener guessing as to what she will do next. Songs like “Birth in Reverse” still provide the ear-splitting riffs while presenting them in unique ways.
Overall, St. Vincent has definitely earned its spot on the top ten list for the year. On this album, Annie proves that she’s still hungry and will stop at nothing until she’s the queen of the rock world. She may well be already there.
– Jake Waters, Programming Director and DJ
10. Courtney Barnett: The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas
Courtney Barnett is a 26 year old singer-songwriter from Melbourne, Australia. As the title of the album indicates, this album is actually a compilation of her two critically acclaimed EPs, I‘ve Got a Friend Called Emily Ferris and How to Carve a Carrot Into a Rose. The double EP is filled with Dylan-esque vocals with clever and conversational lyrics that tell a story. Alternating between upbeat and funny songs like History Eraser, which talks of free margaritas and passing out on top of the sheets, and ballads like Porcelain and Anonymous Club, which focus more on Barnett’s unique voice, this is an album that can fit any mood, place, or time of year. This album is incredible the whole way through, everyone should give it a shot.
-Allison McFall, DJ and Music Staffer
Honorable Mention: Alvvays-Alvvays, SYRO – Aphex Twin, Nikki Nack – tUnE-yArDs, Burn Your Fire For No Witness– Angel Olsen, Our Love – Caribou, Manipulator – Ty Segall