Top Contenders for 2014 Indie Album of the Year

24 Sep

2014 has been a fantastic year for indie pop, rock and folk music. As we approach the three-quarter mark, it’s already shaping up as the best in recent memory. And we still have three months to go!

The list of artists in contention for the top spot is long (in alphabetical order): Bishop Allen, First Aid Kit, Future Islands, Jenny Lewis, J. Mascis, New Pornographers, Conor Oberst, Real Estate, St. Vincent, The War on Drugs, James Wallace. And you may have other favorites that merit consideration.

So, I thought this would be an ideal time to take a quick snapshot of where we are in 2014 and speculate about what might be near the top of this year’s countdown when January 2015 rolls around.

Welcome Back Award

That has to go to Bishop Allen, the indie band out of Kingston, NY via Brooklyn and Cambridge, Mass. (The co-founders are Harvard grads.) Bishop Allen was regarded as one of the brightest lights in indie music when we last heard from them. But that was 2009. Five years later, Lights Out isn’t receiving quite the same level of critical acclaim, but it’s great to have something new from the band. The album is a collection of well-written, expertly produced indie pop that is excellent from start to finish. By the way, Bishop Allen is great live, and if you’d like to see them, they’re at the Rickshaw Stop in San Francisco on Sunday, Oct. 5th at 8 p.m. I’ll be there.

conor_oberst_upside_down_mountain_2

Best Lyrics – Male

Conor Oberst, without a doubt. This is an album you have to listen to, not just play in the background as you hang with your friends. In Upside Down Mountain, Oberst — who performed for years as Bright Eyes — has created an amazingly personal look at life that’s deep without being self-conscious. He demonstrates why the best poets of our time are songwriters. “Desert Island Questionnaire” is a highlight on the album. By the way, Oberst will also be in San Francisco early next month — Saturday, October 4th at 9 p.m. at the Fillmore.

Best Lyrics – Female

Jenny Lewis. Her album, The Voyager, speaks for a generation of young women who have made their way through their turbulent twenties and into their late thirties, often filled with doubt about the path they have taken and the stops they have made along the way. Lewis, formerly with Rilo Kiley, sums up her 38 years in “Just One of the Guys” saying, “I’m just another lady without a baby.” The line is sung without bitterness, but rather with a feeling of resignation that this is who she is and wondering whether this will define her going forward.

First Aid Kit

Best Young Artists

First Aid Kit takes this. The two Swedish sisters — Johanna, 23, and Klara, 21 — are tremendous talents. They write and perform Americana like natives. Already on their third album, The Lion’s Roar, at this young age, this is a band you have to hear if you like indie folk, Americana, or alt country. Again, they’ll be performing in the Bay Area this fall — I’m beginning to think I should be getting some compensation from concert promoters for this blog! You can see the sisters at the Fox Theater in Oakland on Thursday, November 13th at 8 p.m.

Best “Below the Radar” Album

“Lost in the Dream” by The War on Drugs. I almost missed this one. I believe I played a track or two from the album on my show on KZSU, Stanford back in March. But I rediscovered it when I was writing this blog. And it’s a real contender for the top spot in 2014. In its review, Pitchfork called it, “the War on Drugs’ most lustrous, intricately detailed, and beautifully rendered record to date….what at first seemed like a fairly straightforward, traditionalist roots-rock exercise has very gradually, very subtly blossomed into something wondrous and profound.”

There’s a little bit of Bon Iver in it, a little bit of Tom Petty, and maybe even a dash of The Boss or Dylan. But even with those timeless connections, it’s original and breathtaking. I’m glad I found it, even if after the fact.

Real Estate

Top Contenders

Two other strong contenders for indie pop, rock or folk album of the year are Real Estate’s Atlas and St. Vincent’s self-titled CD. Strangely, those two albums plus The War on Drugs all were added to KZSU’s new releases the same week: March 14th! Maybe that’s why I missed The War on Drugs — I was distracted by Real Estate’s leisurely, jangly style and lighthearted look on the quick passage of time and Annie Clark’s “bold and almost jarringly confident” (Pitchfork) guitar-oriented pop-rock. Whatever the reason, St. Vincent and The War on Drugs sit atop the list of top albums at this point on a website that consolidates the reviews from a dozen or more sources, with Real Estate not far behind. If I had to choose today, it would be a tough decision.

What do you think? Comment here, or you can post your favorites to my Facebook page at KZSU Time Traveler.

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