As 2014 drew to a close, many national music critics joined in a collective sigh.
They lamented that there had been too few landmark albums released in the preceding 12 months. But at home in the Triangle, limiting a list of notable 2014 albums to a mere 25 became a problem. The results divide between multiple generations and genres, towns and labels. Together, they shape a testament to the strength of this area's acts.
1. The Tender Fruit, The Darkness Comes (self-released)
Christy Smith isn't scared of you. She's had worse lovers, gone through grimmer places and survived more wicked situations in order to arrive at The Darkness Comes, her second album as The Tender Fruit. In 2010, Smith debuted with an endearing and love-wounded set; it made you want to commiserate. But these 10 songs point fingers, assign blame and stake claims, accepting the cruelties of existence and then battling them with the force of a suddenly confident singer and bandleader. At the start of the title track, for instance, Smith sounds as if she's moaning with despair, a kid born into sadness dealing with it well into adulthood. But halfway through, her voice—now flinty and strong—crests, dismissing God or a boyfriend or someone who's simply in her way: "One day, I just cut that charlatan out of my head/so you can't write me out." You could say that Smith took four years to make this album, but it feels more genuine to say she spent several years living its songs and is only now offering them as a public, powerful reckoning.
2. VVAQRT, Detainee (Hot Releases)
If you tilt your head to one side, Philip Maier and Emily Withers make pop tunes, her voice bounding over his percolating electronics in lithe little hooks and verses that have a sing-song lilt even when she's speaking them. Tilt your head the other way, though, and most of that gets lost, with the duo's numbers turning into noise-addled electro, where the vocals simply suggest a family of ghosts living in the machines. On Detainee, VVAQRT becomes a lenticular pop act, where what's perceived depends on the position of the person perceiving. Is "Cul De Sac" a circular jumble of static-laced synths and strange rhythms, or is the noise simply in the way of the tune? And what matters most about "Hole in the Lake," the vertiginous sounds or its lullaby accompaniment? It's more fun to choose both.
3. Hiss Golden Messenger, Lateness of Dancers (Merge Records)
Songs about drinking whiskey on a Saturday or dancing with friends, pleasant nostalgia for what's been forsaken and forced emancipation from what has hurt the most: Did Hiss Golden Messenger's Michael Taylor suddenly get a little happier? Sort of, at least in the limited sense that Lateness of Dancers, his first album for Merge, finds Taylor asking his trademark questions about loyalty, religion and existence from a place of hearth and home, not restless wandering. On Lateness of Dancers, Taylor seems settled but not satisfied. He adds both full-band muscle and ponderous abstraction to his solitary thoughts, pressing against the borders of Americana without shuffling too far from a hard-won seat of safety.
4. Horseback, Piedmont Apocrypha (Three Lobed Recordings)
If you come to Horseback's new Piedmont Apocrypha after having heard only the band's bludgeoning The Invisible Mountain or the electrostatic and snarling Half Blood, you might think that project anchor Jenks Miller is trolling every metal fan he's ever earned. Where did those massive drums go? What about those forked-tongued vocals? But Piedmont Apocrypha is a logical and necessary move for this project. Clean but caustic singing, arrays of acoustic instruments and glowing background drones attempt to rearrange just what heaviness can mean. Current 93 and OM, Loren Connors and Ash Ra Tempel: These five pieces put paws on it all. It's an honest—and, yes, to some apocryphal—exploration of new daunting music, culminating in a crescendo that washes you in redemptive electricity.
5. Porter Robinson, Worlds (Astralwerks)
The 22-year-old Chapel Hill producer Porter Robinson has essentially been on tour or in the studio since he was an area high-school student. It shows on Worlds, a full-length debut that suggests the experience of someone a decade older. Robinson pivots perfectly between head-down EDM browbeaters ("Flicker") and face-to-the-sky, sing-along reveries ("Hear the Bells"). There's a big cast of guests, but Robinson integrates them into his orbit with veteran aplomb. Worlds is gigantic but cozy, a home that you wouldn't mind calling your own, too.
6. King Mez, Long Live the King (self-released)
The Raleigh rapper King Mez has often spoken about the artifice of making music, or how creation necessarily puts a step between the audience and the artist. But on the excellent Long Live the King, where his enviably deep voice twists through personal annals and reveals private aspirations, Mez begins to feel like an emcee you know, like someone who's finally comfortable enough with a microphone to let the crowd close. He samples Radiohead and mirrors Outkast, dismisses rappers encouraged only by money while confessing that, sure, he'd also like to have nice things. Long Live revels in its complexity of character—and smartly hangs several simple hooks as waiting bait.
7. Alice Gerrard, Follow the Music (Tompkins Square)
Two months before the September release of Follow the Music, Alice Gerrard—a bona fide giant of American folk and bluegrass, a singer who cooed and cut her way into the canon—turned 80. You might suppose, then, that age had made her inflexible, compelling her to create records much as she always had. But Hiss Golden Messenger's Michael Taylor turns a Rick Rubin-like trick here, convincing Gerrard to use a cast of local aces to add trotting banjo, waltzing country and stately pop to her sylvan dream of a voice. But she pushes back, taking care to never let her rural sensibilities concede to a gentrified touch. See, by example, "The Vulture," her eight-minute a cappella moan of death and despair. No, it's not a new trick, but it's a marvel just the same.
8. Last Year's Men, Underwhelmed (self-released)
"Sorry it took so long," Last Year's Men write in the online-only liner notes of their second album, Underwhelmed. "Thanks for dealing with us hosers." Four years passed between the release of the first and magnetic Last Year's Men album and this new 10-song batch, but the apology has less to do with wasted time than momentum. When Last Year's Men began writing and recording these songs, they were a much-buzzed label prospect, making an album with stylistic hero Greg Cartwright. Then they stalled and struggled to finish at all. Still, it's hard to tell from Underwhelmed, a set that's perhaps more radiant and energetic than its predecessor. There's a touch of veteran cynicism and sophistication, particularly in some new chances the arrangements take. But when Ben Carr barks, "Baby, do you still love me?" during "By the Way," he has to know there's only one answer.
9. Chatham County Line, Tightrope (Yep Roc Records)
In honor of the International Bluegrass Music Association's 2013 arrival in Raleigh, Chatham County Line wrote an unofficial welcome-to-town tune for the ghosts of Monroe, Watson, Flatt and Scruggs. When IBMA's fest returned this fall, Chatham County Line played several times, the hometown boys delighting natives and guests alike. But it's been years, maybe even a decade, since this quartet could be considered a bluegrass act, despite the traditional instrumentation. Tightrope, their sixth album, confirms that outlier status, with songs about aging and death, heroes and escapes that mostly suggest The Band and The Jayhawks taking sincere acoustic turns. Likewise, Tightrope galvanizes frontman Dave Wilson's reputation as a top-tier craftsman, capable of turning most any feeling into an irrepressible melody.
A 22-minute LP concerning a family forced to live a lifetime in Siberian exile, the music shifting from electro spasms to acoustic drudgery to cacophonous bedlam? Packaged with another LP that mostly trades guitars for a motley assortment of synthesizers and beat machines, drum kits and punch-drunk hooks, abrasive codas and cold-stare comedowns? Whatever Brains continue their streak of using expectations as invitations to do something else entirely. "UVOD," from SSR-64, is perhaps their most instant and addictive tune ever; "///////," the album-encompassing marvel from SSR-63, is their most ambitious. Long may they continue to fuck with most everyone.
11. Demon Eye, Leave the Light (Soulseller Records)
The music on Leave the Light, the first LP from Raleigh's Demon Eye, could be mistaken as being older than the musicians who made it, but just barely. A group of four longtime players pushing or past the age of 40, with day jobs and kids at home, Demon Eye revels in its own proto-metal splendor. The feeling rubs off, especially when the volume knob is cranked to the right. Distorted riffs and sharp leads, clattering drums and vocal acrobatics, demonic subjects and haunted pursuits: It's all here, delivered with the guilelessness of a band that's lived and played too damn long to be concerned with making anything but themselves smile. Righteousness awaits the faithful.
12. Blursome, Heavy Resting (Locus Recordings)
Lara Wehbie is an essential component of an emerging cadre of electronic musicians and listeners in the capital city, an area generally not regarded for its beats. As Blursome, though, she doesn't go looking for crowds as much as she lets them fall into her gravitational field. Like muted dubstep mutant Burial or drum-and-texture damager Andy Stott, Blursome works under cover of gray clouds on the five-track EP Heavy Resting. She likes blankets of bass and rhythms that spiral into themselves, vocals that seem disembodied and samples that imply a story rather than tell it. Heavy Resting is a perennially distant gaze; good luck resisting the urge to keep moving toward it, like a hapless victim of Zeno's paradoxes.
13. Jonathan Byrd, You Can't Outrun the Radio (Waterbug)
Jonathan Byrd swings from the roots of American music on these 10 songs as if they were actually vines. He jumps between gutbucket blues and tender ballads, empathetic work laments and sympathetic character studies. One of the state's most overlooked writers, Byrd shares the often-missed, always poignant tales of the small people that make this world such a big place.
14. Daniel Bachman, Orange Co. Serenade (Bathetic Records)
Young guitarist Daniel Bachman seems to be a perennial searcher, sorting through styles to find the sound that suits the moment. This eight-song set discovers ecstasy in such variety, whether in the heavy and howling strums of "Blue Mass" or the sparkling slide work of "Little Lady Blues." May he continue to roam.
15. Flesh Wounds, Flesh Wounds (Snot Releases)
Though this Chapel Hill trio put out a fine 7" on Merge early in the year, Flesh Wounds' full depravity and delight bleeds through on their self-titled, self-released LP. Sardonic and scoffing at the world, Montgomery Morris leads an attack that manages to bracket garage-rock fury with accessibility borrowed from Nirvana and the Violent Femmes. It's a righteous mess.
16. Lost in the Trees, Past Life (ANTI- RECORDS)
Thanks to the orchestral grandeur and widescreen emotions of the first several Lost in the Trees releases, you might not associate sharp riffs or big rhythms with Ari Picker's aesthetic. But after trimming the ranks and deciding to write as much about the present as the past, his latest (and perhaps last as Lost in the Trees?) record flexes a previously hidden bravado without forsaking his feelings. This year, Picker found necessary energy in economy.
17. Rapsody, The Beauty and the Beast (Jamla/EMPIRE)
In a year of internationally emergent female emcees, Rapsody—under the tutelage of 9th Wonder for the better part of a decade now—grew from scrappy upstart to alluring embodiment of her own obstinate attitude. Her voice has broadened, and her lines have sprouted barbs. Next, an anthem and a proper album?
18. Spider Bags, Frozen Letter (Merge Records)
The lovable misfits burst into Frozen Letter, their small eight-song debut on one of the land's bigger labels, just as you'd expect: a series of four perfectly pugnacious rock songs about regret, lack thereof, cynicism and the scene, man. They get lost in half-step attempts at weirdness down the line, but you have to love the path they plot.
19. Skemäta, Skemäta Demo (Sorry State Records)
The Triangle's hardcore scene continues to be a vital operation of salvage and recycling, where familiar parts and people come reordered into energized new units. This eight-minute tantrum from Raleigh's Skemäta laces dead-ahead charge with noise bookends, surprising solos and undeniably intense urges. It's urgent, aggressive and awesome.
20. Sylvan Esso, Sylvan Esso (Partisan Records)
A good LP that ferried this accidental duo toward major popularity, Sylvan Esso suggests something great but—at least, to date—a touch inchoate, too. Still, many of the songs here woo you, especially since Amelia Meath's voice is capable of curling into a schoolyard chant and instantly stretching toward the rafters. This year, she emerged as a dynamo frontwoman; hopefully, that propels the second record beyond mere "Dreamy Bruises."
21. The Beast, Stories (self-released)
Four concise songs from Durham's The Beast? What's more, four concise songs that show us the smarts of the members without making us suffer through them, that flex the jazz crew's instrumental dexterity without pushing it into absurdity? Absolutely. Coupled with Pierce Freelon's vivid social critique during "Trouble" and the indie ambitions of "Blast Off," this is as compelling as the Durham crew has ever been.
22. T0W3RS, TL;DR (Phuzz Records)
At first, Derek Torres' band-turned-solo project T0W3RS seemed like an act of simulacra, where he heard things he liked—Animal Collective, Lonnie Walker, Passion Pit—and fashioned himself after it. There's a touch of that on TL;DR, but it's largely overwhelmed by the feeling that his pop is now becoming his, with attitude, charm and playfulness to spare.
23. Ashrae Fax, Never Really Been Into It (Mexican Summer)
Sure, it's a revisionist move to rework the surviving flotsam of your teenage band as an adult, especially after leading other acts for years. But Ashrae Fax never got its fair shake, anyway. Renée Mendoza's attempts to turn their intended first album into an afterlife miracle that hangs somewhere between the dance floor and a dream, suspended in webs of astral keyboards and physical, fetching hooks.
24. Lilac Shadows, No Dark/No Light (DiggUp Tapes)
Sometimes pulsing and sometimes lulling, occasionally dissonant but often blissful, the eight songs of Lilac Shadows' debut LP find common threads in the beguiling melodies of Sam Logan, his effortless delivery and a touch of gentle distance added by reverb and echo. You want these songs to surround you.
25. Octopus Jones, Phantasmagoria (self-released)
The Octopus Jones lineup that made the 10-song Phantasmagoria no longer exists, and that's too bad: They could have been great. Technical enough to play jazz but not interested, hooky enough to make pop but not normal enough, Octopus Jones turned these tunes into possible byways between Liars and Bowie, Byrne and Tortoise. Too bad they couldn't follow the paths they found.
Grayson Haver Currin is the music editor of the Indy.