It hasn't been a great year. Robin Williams committed suicide. A small suburb in Missouri became a flashpoint of decades of enduring animosity between law enforcement and African-American communities. Anonymous internet bullies harassed women in disgusting force over critical examinations of modern gaming (as a flashpoint of the lingering presence of vitriolic misogyny in American society) under the auspices of GamerGate. Philip Seymour Hoffman succumbed to addiction, and anonymous internet criminals unleashed a cache of private stolen photos, violating and victimizing hundreds of people and a few high profile celebrities. If there's been a year recently where you'd need an excuse to slip away from the real world, 2014 was it.
And right now, that escape is the gently flowing guitar work of Matt Mondanile on Real Estate
's "Talking Backwards." The specifics are different, but it's a timeless choice... music. You might break up with your girlfriend, or maybe your boss is giving you a hard time, or maybe Republicans suddenly control both houses of the U.S. legislature, but you can always retreat into music. And what a beautiful retreat it is.
At the end of the day, I'm hard-pressed to name any albums from 2014 that could match the top of last year. There's no Yeezus
. There's no Modern Vampires of the City
, and there certainly hasn't been a Reflektor
. 2014 hasn't been short on thoroughly satisfying records (and a handful of great ones), but it lacked any earth-shattering moments like last year. What 2014 hasn't lacked however, are albums perfect for escape.
I mean "escape" in a variety of its definitions. There have been albums for escaping the emotional turmoil of everyday life, with thanks to the emotional catharsis each provides. There have been albums that offer mesmerizing soundscapes in which to lose yourself, and then there have been records that shift an existing sonic touchstone just so — whether that be Post-Punk with a splash of New Romantics, or Tom Petty with a serious helping of Jackson Browne — that they then tap into a magic that demands every note be explored. Whatever type of musical escape you sought, 2014 offered it.
Let's circle back to Real Estate for a moment. This year's Atlas
may have lacked an "It's Real"
to generate easy buzz, but it's arguably a richer album than 2011's Days
. Real Estate is suburban New Jersey nostalgia in band form, and the yearning for "all those wasted miles, all those aimless drives" belies the poppier riffs and structure of the last record. But, on Atlas
, Martin Courtney and crew found a laser focus.
The lyrical filter between the audience and the band's memories manifests sonically on the new record. Atlas
plays like a classic hi-fi drifting across the massive lawn of a crowded family reunion. Mondanile's psychedelic surf rock melodies seem to simply shimmer out of existence. Atlas
practically begs you to get lost in your own reminiscences and daydreams as Real Estate wades through their own. And, while the past can hold its own treasure trove of pain and heartbreak, Atlas
offers listeners the chance to slip on headphones, close their eyes, and escape to a world where things were maybe just a little bit better.
Or to go further down this rabbit hole, look at Flying Lotus
's You're Dead!
. 2010's Cosmogramma
marked FlyLo as a purveyor of ethereal, spaced-out electronica, but You're Dead!
is an Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test
trip into the jazz stratosphere for the L.A. producer. Taking major cues from Miles Davis's Bitches Brew
period, FlyLo melds jazz and dystopian electronic beats into the sound of a cyber-noir future. Over the course of 38 minutes, an entire world is evoked and laid out for discovery.
Crafting an album with an almost physical presence in its complexity results in one of the most satisfying venues of musical escape. Attempting to figure out every nook and cranny is half of Kid A
's appeal, and what is Agaetis byrjun
but Jonsi's personal invitation to get lost in Sigur Ros's otherworldly tones. And while You're Dead!
may not be at those illustrious levels, the record's chameleon-esque nature inspires your total attention.
While I bemoaned the lack of earth-shattering records this year, a handful have come close. The War on Drugs
, Future Islands
, and Run the Jewels
all made their marks in a big way. RTJ 2
is too confrontational to be escapist — it actively forces you to engage with the current world — but, Lost in the Dream
manages to turn a grab bag of 1980s American rock into two of the most elegantly textured records of the year.
The War On Drugs' Lost in the Dream
is one of the best, shameless Americana records since , Wilco
's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
, and proves that roots rock doesn't have to be a well of ultra-masculine Black Keys
stereotypes. It can feel like a brisk fall day where golden leaves fall, and you dwell on where life is going to take you. Mark Kozelek infamously called The War on Drugs out
for their classic roots aesthetic, but he sincerely misses the point. Adam Granduciel and company use an established sound to create a world where everything is just off, and you can't help but dive in anew.
is one of the most emotionally raw records of the year, though Future Islands wisely conceals it against ice cold synth and bass lines. Samuel Herring's guttural growl and deceptively feral yelps hint at a pain of darkness beneath every 80s pop instrumental hook. When an album peddles such complex dichotomies with such ease, is there any other option than to simply lose yourself in the music? These records demand more than a casual listen, and we voluntarily surrender to them.
There's a reason you listen to the same album any time you have a break-up (The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me
/Brand New). Maybe you have a go to record for a date (Vespertine
). There's something about great music that blocks the rest of the world away and, we hope, draws us into its world. 2014 lacked a singular watershed moment, but something tells me that one day I'll feel nostalgic for the world as it might have been, and I'll put on Atlas
. I'll crave a hyperdrive sensory escape from Mitch McConnell's Congress, and I'll bathe in the grooves of You're Dead!
. It will be October, the trees will be a panoply of majestic hues, and I'll hit play on "Under the Pressure." I'll start walking. "Red Eyes" will segue into existence, and The War on Drugs will have crafted me a portal to their other world.