It’s official: we’re already halfway through 2014. While we’ve already compiled a list of the albums we’re most excited for in the next six months, we thought we’d also give you a refresher on the superb half-year of music we’ve already experienced so far.

Take some time and have a look back on some of 2014’s best releases so far, as hand-picked by us here at Tone Deaf headquarters – and perhaps even discover some titles that flew under your radar. With excellent LPs coming from big name internationals and from our own crop of homegrown Australian talent, spanning across all genres, these are the 24 Best Albums Of The Year So Far – in vaguely chronological order of their release.

Now bring on the rest of 2014, we say.

St. Vincent – St. Vincent

Typically when an artist plumbs for a self-titled release for a record other than their debut, it’s to signify a sense of artistic re-birth or to summarise everything that’s great about them to date. In the case of St. Vincent – it’s both.

Capitalising beautifully on her time touring and recording with fitting art rock mentor David Byrne, Annie Clark’s fourth album as St. Vincent is a bold amalgamation of style and substance that revels in its own strangeness yet is utterly infectious in its appeal despite its unconventional moorings.

It cultivates all of Clark’s best skills – a filthy good guitarist, her knack for experimental hooks, enthralling storytelling – and bends them with a newfound confidence and strength. Her wonky convulsions more sophisticated; her twisted take on art-pop and corkscrewed, electronic-shaded indie more distinguished; her restrained moments now as compelling as her skronky aural agitations. Only Annie Clark could make a song about fleeing bare-assed away from a rattlesnake one of the least quirky moments on an album abundant in them.

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It makes total sense that Clark was selected as one of four generational representatives for Niravana’s Hall Of Fame fem-medley, because she’ll soon fulfil ‘Queen of indie rock’ role that she’s been groomed to become across three progressively inventive albums. And sat at her sci-fi throne on the cover, with a shock of Cruella De Ville hair, she looks every bit the regal matriarch; on St. Vincent she sounds it too.

Temples – Sun Structures

(Heavenly Recordings/[PIAS] Australia)
Forget buzz bands that have to prep their debut full-length albums under the looming spectre of hype, Kettering quartet Temples had to saddle the expectations of being declared ‘Britain’s best new band’ by the music old guard of Oasis and The Smiths while awaiting to deliver Sun Structures. 

It’s no small achievement then that this kaleidoscopic array of 12 songs managed to shrug off the suffocating weight of high, hotly-tipped expectations. Their success is largely thanks to the dazzling way in which Temples seem to effortlessly siphon previous generations of British psych-rock into a highly listenable and infectious modern format.

More than just obviously listening to and mimicking The Kinks, Beatles, Byrds and Monkees at their best (re: their highest), they’ve studied them. It might fly in the face of music purists, but in many ways Temples are the UK’s answer to Tame Impala (and especially on ‘Mesmerise’ you’d be forgiven for confusing the two); like our Perth exports they’ll also be slagged as derivative by cynics, but similarly there’s no denying their mastery.

Sun Structures’ on-point smorgasbord of psychedelia, baggy jams, shaggy-haired rock, glam, and peak-period 60s and 70s sounds – with All Mod Cons. And when it makes for such a highly enjoyable listen (and from first-timers, mind) does the argument over their verisimilitude really matter? We think not.

Blank Realm – Grassed Inn

(Bedroom Suck)
On their third full-length record, Brisbane cult-favourites Blank Realm produced their most accessible and arguably best release to date. Pertaining to their familiar off-kilter sound, Grassed In drowns in mythical synths and sumptuous yet slacker guitars that set the scene for the incredibly infectious pop hits such as ‘Falling Down The Stairs’ and ‘Reach On The Phone’.

At the same time, the record also tends to spiral with unpredictable ease into eight-minute psychedelic jams like ‘Bulldozer Love.’

Such expansive differences highlight, for one, the depth of these eight songs, but also the damn near impossibility of categorising these Queenslanders, which only adds to their overall appeal. This is a proud Aussie release that stands strong against any other in 2014.

Sun Kil Moon – Benji

(Caldo Verde)
Delving deep into the profoundly personal details of a 47-year-old songwriters concerns about death, growing old, murder, loss, and oh yeah, more death, seems like a rather ugly prospect. But when the balladeer doing the storytelling is the prolific Mark Kozelek, those seemingly alienating and ugly details are swiftly transformed into absorbingly profound and brave universal truths.

On his latest set of poignant poetry disguised as rambling stream-of-conscious musing, the US songwriter tackles the full spectrum of human emotion – from nostalgia to sadness, sheer joy to jealousy; most remarkably, often with a focussed sonic palette (typically naught but acoustic guitar and his croaky voice). His literary style is definitely an acquired taste, but with the striking sincerity of Benji you’ll soon move on from the flavour and instead come to treasure it like a dear old friend.

The War On Drugs – Lost In The Dream

(Secretly Canadian)
Did you know that it took Adam Granduciel three years to complete this record? The singer-songwriter’s manic perfectionist approach to writing, recording and producing almost drove him to the brink of insanity, but man did it pay off.

Lost In The Dream is a heartbreak record that lyrically spirals into deep suffering and isolation, seamlessly complemented with waves of mind-numbing neo-psychedelic sonic textures that paint the whole picture of Granduciel’s forlorn wandering stream of consciousness. This record blows away any listener, raising the common question, “how does he encapsulate Dylan and Springsteen but in a completely modern way?!” The secret is all the Philadelphia musician’s own.

We’d be shocked to find a mid-year or even end-year list that doesn’t have this new classic positioned comfortably near the top.

Lowlakes – Iceberg Nerves

This record could not have arrived at a better time in Aussie music, especially within Melbourne. At this point, the scene is heavily dominated by ironic ocker accents and almost exclusively of bands trafficking jangle-pop twang or stoner garage-rock with psychedelic freak-outs. The four lads of Lowlakes however, cooly swept across the nation with their bone-chilling dream-pop and shoegaze aesthetic via this stunning debut full-length release.

The utterly breathtaking pairing of frontman Tom Snowdon’s vocals to the band’s misty melancholic sonic darkness resulted in a thing of bleak beauty, one of those records where you want to shut out all the lights and totally immerse yourself in its sounds. Best Aussie sleeper hit of the year? We’re calling it.

Perfect Pussy – Say Yes To Love

This hard-hitting Syracuse five-piece caused quite a stir when their debut full-length landed this year. If you’re wondering why, just take two minutes of your time and listen to one of their tracks. Unabashed, ferocious, confronting, melodic, distorted, bold and fuckin’ fast – Say Yes To Love is the perfect example of how a noise punk record should be.

The spitting, snarling frontwoman that is Meredith Graves described the collection of tracks as “happy revelations about incendiary events.” The band’s fearless and raw approach has made for one of, if not the most refreshing record to be released thus far in 2014.

King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard – Oddments

(Flightless/Remote Control)
Apparently having satisfied their hankering for acid-drenched psych rock with the grandest of gestures (that’d be the 17-minute sitar-bleeding headfuck that was ‘Head On/Pill’) King Gizzard spare only 42 seconds for the garage rock that made them on Oddments. And that’s split between two tracks!

Instead, they’re free to further roam the outer edges of their musical curiosities into other tangents, flexing their creative muscle in surprising ways. UMO-indebted psych-soul on ‘Stressin’; bluesy swagger on ‘It’s Got Old’; hokey whimsy with ‘Sleepwalker’ and ‘Vegemite’; surf rock irreverence on ‘Hot Wax’ – just to name a few willingly wanton tangents.

Given they’ve produced four albums in the same span of time it takes most outfits to produce just one LP, King Gizzard laugh in the face of diminishing returns, proving that being persistently prolific is the best thing for these seven creative minds. The inevitable out-there delights of albums #5 and #6 can’t come soon enough.

Todd Terje – It’s Album Time

There’s an argument to be made that It’s Album Time is the Random Access Memories of 2014. Much like Daft Punk’s self-indulgent opus, Norwegian producer Todd Terje looks backward in order to move forward, whether it’s with imaginary 80s movie soundtracks (the neon glow of ‘Delorean Dynamite’) or day-glo kitsch (a Bryan Ferry-abetted cover of ‘Johnny and Mary’). But unlike the Parisian robots, Terje isn’t burdened with serious ambitions to revolutionise dance and electronic music.

Freely exercising his most colourful indulgences – be they Euro pastiche (‘Leisure Suit Preben’), doo wop muzak (Svensk Sås) or bubbling disco (‘Inspector Norse’) – without ever letting the sense of irony slip away from him, Terje’s hour-long adventure sounds like it was as much fun to create as it is easy to listen to.

Dan Sultan – Blackbird

It had been five gruelling years since Melbourne’s born and bred cannon of rock’n’roll and country soul had released a record, so it’s safe to say the levels of anxious anticipation were sky-high by the time we got our hands on this, and even then, this burning piece of wax almost caught us off guard.

On Blackbird there is no question that Sultan has found exactly what he is looking for in terms of his songcraft, producing fiery Aussie desert rock ‘n roll and unleashing his dry RnB vocals, fearlessly on a set that has all the polish and commercial appeal of a mainstream rock record but none of the heartless bluster. Sultan, from his bones to his guitar-blistered fingers, couldn’t do passionless if he tried.

If time is what Sultan needs between releases to produce something as powerfully solid as Blackbird, the 30-year old can take as long as he needs. Or, to quote our original assessment, “Blackbird epitomises everything a good Australian rock album should be.”

Mac DeMarco – Salad Days

(Captured Tracks)
Up until April 2014, the boy we knew as Mac DeMarco was a gap-toothed jokester who penned love ballads to his favourite cheap ‘n nasty ciggies, would gladly expose himself at live shows, and the most serious sentiments extracted from the prankster would be recounts of when he re-enacted a Terence and Philip clip with one of his pals. Then along came Salad Days

This record witnessed Maccy up the echelon in terms of his lyrical prose, baring frustrated honesty as he begrudgingly abandoned his adolescence for adulthood in what seemed far too premature for his liking. Sonically, DeMarco still pertained to his signature off-kilter jangle-pop, as well as exploring space-rock elements through synthesisers and the refinement of that suave-as-fuck cigarette-drenched croon.

Nun – Nun

(Aarght Records)
Melbourne’s post-punk, dark-synth innovators Nun bravely threw their extreme, completely left field LP into the 2014 mix, which we previously proclaimed “an exhilarating rollercoaster of emotion and visceral intensity,” in our initial glowing review, and we’re sticking to the claim that “there isn’t a single song on the LP that doesn’t grab you, crush you, lift you up, and dump you in the gutter.” Leading track ‘Evoke The Sleep’ cuts right into your brain paralysing your consciousness to a standstill with its hypnotic synth repetition. ‘Uri Geller’ takes you deeper into the Nun-induced labyrinth as the track slowly but surely engulfs the listener into a blurred chaos of inescapable synth layers.

The incredibly wayward sound NUN produced is something out of this world, and it works. As Aussies, we should be beaming with pride that we can call this band our own.

Kelis – Food

(Ninja Tune/Inertia)
Four years is a damn long time to wait between meals, but that’s exactly how long Kelis left us starving after 2010’s Flesh Tone, until April this year, when she finally opened the kitchen doors to serve us her delicious Food. Witnessing the restlessly creative musician stepping away from such heavy electronic productions of her previous output, Kelis splashed our palates with her most organic and refreshing release to date.

The record gives clear nods towards Memphis soul, Afro-beat, and overall classic RnB influences – a much more natural area for the 34-year old (especially when partnered with TV On The Radio’s Dave Sitek as producer). If you’re yet to devour this record, we’ve got good news – Kelis’ Food doesn’t spoil over time, like the dishes she served at SXSW, so grab your knife and fork and tuck in.

Ratking – So It Goes

(XL Recordings)
After releasing 2012’s slightly disjointed Wiki93 EP to a lukewarm reception, the debut full-length from this New York-based trio saw MCs Wiki and Hak, and producer Sporting Life bouncing back; releasing one of the year’s most promising hip hop releases in the process.

“You just gotta look at the root from where it comes from you know?” quizzes the album’s spoken word intro, “all these rappers right now are from a whole different generation. If your life experiences are different it’s gonna come out differently.” Wise words.

Inexplicably informed by its Big Apple roots, So It Goes was produced by Jay Z collaborator Young Guru, and aware that their reinvention of 90s boom bap style was going to be compared to New York luminaries Biggie and 2Pac, the teenage outfit claim to be more inspired by punk than rap. A mode championed by artists like Danny Brown (one of Ratking’s biggest fans) and like the impish Brown, their chaotic energy is just as important as their lyrical content.

That said, MC Wiki’s use of alliteration gives rhythm to his jumbled, rapid-fire flow while producer Sporting Life’s electro/MIDI-hip hop hybrid beats manage the album’s eccentricities just enough to keep listeners on edge without losing control.

Archie Bronson Outfit – Wild Crush

This British trio have kicked around the scene for over a decade now, they’ve typically been that kind of band that slip under any popular guise and established a more niche following. But with the May release of album number four, Wild Crush, that could all be set to change.

If you’re a fan of cleaner-skinned garage rock and indie pop, we’re super stoked to announce that this is the best album that you missed thus far in 2014. Jam-packed with stadium filling tunes – such as the riff-hungry ‘We Are Floating’, the brass-burning ‘Two Doves On A Lake,’ or the robotic voiced closer ‘Country Mile’ – Wild Crush is a rock staple in the making.

Give this record a bit of time, soon it will be absolutely everywhere, and you ain’t gonna mind one bit.

DZ Deathrays – Black Rat

Hailing from the northern skies of Brisbane, where they’re known ’round town as the “after-dark party team”, DZ Deathrays returned at the start of May with their banging follow-up to their ARIA-scooping debut LP, Bloodstreams.

So where does album #2 place the I OH YOU darlings? Black Rat witnesses the duo honing in on their foot stompin’, anthem-styled lyrics, producing chanting sing-alongs that are virtually impossible not to belt out in unification. ‘Gina Works At Hearts’ anyone?

But more admirably than knocking out tube-testing belters like ‘Reflective Skull’, sonically, Shane Parsons and Simon Ridley continued to explore the depths of their soaring distorted guitars and mud-stained sludge bass tones. Even as they dabble with glittery disco-punk (‘Fixations’) or crunching tenderness (‘Northern Nights’), they still pertain to that somewhat bratty-punk aesthetic and conviction that earned the pair such a dedicated following to begin with – a testament to the addictive world of trash-pop.

Let this bad boy soundtrack your next house party or night out.

Swans – To Be Kind

(Young God/Mute)
Further proof this seminal experimental rock group cannot be stopped. While world shook with the release of 2012’s The Seer, with some having believed the group had reach their plateau, along comes To Be Kind to show how wrong they were. A year and a half on, cantankerous leader Michael Gira and his acolytes’ 12th record drums up the same hellish fear and ‘catharsis by brutality’, but in terrifying new configurations.

Turning in a whopping 121 minutes, this brilliant record manages to encapsulate everything from twisted blues and distorted jazz to terrifying industrial atmospherics. We can’t lie, everything about To Be Kind is uncompromising, intimidating, and brutal, but that’s what makes this seething release one of the band’s, and the year’s, best.

Rat & Co. – Binary

Chet Faker’s long-gestating full-length debut may have snagged all the attention, but it was actually his fellow musical cohorts that have – whisper it – produced Melbourne’s best electronic album this year. To be fair, Rat & Co.’s music is barely comparable to Faker’s chilltronica croon, but it is just as captivating and evocative.

As an evolution to the group’s criminally under-heard One (壱) Uno (壹) Ein, this sophomore record has the potential to blow the lid off Rat & Co.’s ‘Best Kept Secret’ status and catapult them into the spotlight.

Binary is a crystallised kaleidoscope of ambient electronica and textured beats that uniformly come together in a hypnotising symbiosis of sound and mood that could soundtrack your prep for a night out as much as it could the final lullabying sonics you hear as you doze off. Masterfully produced, these 12 songs show serious signs of maturity for the group since last year and props them up for serious world class potential in the future. We can’t wait.

Jack White – Lazaretto

(Sony/Third Man Records)
Naturally, when the master of modern blues decides to come out with a new record to place in his 17-year-spanning collection (amongst a conveniently-timed reignited beef with The Black Keys), it’s always going to be one of the year’s most talked about. But amidst all the talk of “has he or hasn’t he lost it his touch”, on Lazaretto White manages to silence the critics the only way he knows how: through his addictive licks, and instant-classic sounding earworms that continue to be soulfully rewarding play after play after play.

As always, this album is a musically adventurous trip through White’s distorted mind, which at this time happens to be going through a break-up. The result is a raucous record that’s a bit unhinged, a deranged musical leap frog between the blurring lines of blues, funk, jazz, dance, and rock. By the end of his second solo album, after all its dizzying riffs and genre honouring/bending, White does – in the words of our Hit or Shit feature, “come pretty close to regaining his title as a rock n’ roll demigod.”

He’s still one of music’s most polarising public figures but the ex-White Stripe still possesses all the right sounds and squalor to back it up. 

REMi – Raw X Infinity

(House Of Beige/Unified)
Not only has 2014 been a breakthrough year for 22-year-old Melbourne rapper Remi Kolawole, but it has also been a breakthrough calendar moment for the Australian hip hop genre as a whole – and that’s definitely not a coincidence.

We’re here to change the Australian rap game,” he spits over the militant snare march of Raw X Infinity‘s opening title track. A bold statement to be sure, but by the time you’ve reached the credits-spouting victory lap of closing track ‘No Enemy’, you’ll not only believe the young gun’s mission statement, you’ll be ready to sign on and champion his cause.

REMi demolishes the preconceptions of an ‘Aussie hip hop’ record, producing a mature collection of tracks that combines forward-thinking production with articulate, sharp-tongued lyricism that’s delivered in a flow of verbal acrobatics that’s pretty unmatched in its mix of pop culture and political barbs. The record’s versatility – with full kudos to production team of Sensible J and Dutch – takes on turn-up party anthems (like the purposely-ironic ‘XTC Party//H.O.B.’), slow-burning chill jams (‘Livin’), a fierce state of the nation address (‘Ode To Ignorance’), and staunch Kanye-esque boast tracks like compelling standout, ‘Tyson’.

Above all else, Raw X Infinity shows that hip hop – Aussie or otherwise – isn’t what it used to be. It’s an entirely new force to be reckoned with, especially with someone like REMi sitting firmly in the driver’s seat.

Mastodon – Once More ‘Round The Sun

(Warner Music Australia)
The four members of Mastodon were the first to admit that their sixth full-length effort was more a stylistic extension of 2011 predecessor The Hunter than it was an evolution. But considering that record was the most economic blending of their musical dimensions yet, deftly mixing their thrash metal ferocity with accessibility, Once More ‘Round The Sun is an even more impressive balancing act.

Yes, their proggiest affectations are scaled back but their wooly instrumental passages (‘Asleep In the Deep’) and technical fireworks displays (late highlight ‘Halloween’) now better suit their ruthless ambition to satisfy their devoted faithful – by harkening back to their roots – while ensnaring a new more mainstream audience. Listen to the titanic sing-along chorus of ‘The Motherload’ and try to figure out if its up-tempo sludge metal or a radio-ready heavy rock anthem. It’s neither and both at the same time.

Never fear, there’s still plenty of challenging moments, either brutally heavy or eccentric (cop the kids choir at the end of ‘Aunt Lisa’!) – but consistency is the overriding principle here. Once More ‘Round The Sun might not be Mastodon’s best album, but it’s certainly the record most likely to expand their fanbase beyond those already subscribed to the Atlanta, Georgians as being the most important and daring band in metal today. In turn, that means they’ve delivered one of the year’s best heavy rock records.

Total Control – Typical System

(Iron Lung Records)
There is nothing typical or systematic about the sophomore effort from Melbourne ‘don’t call them a supergroup’ five-piece Total Control, and while they can’t decide what kind of band they want to be, their indecision is to listeners’ benefit as they lurch towards all manner of sonic territory with terrifyingly astute precision.

In many ways, Typical System is like the perfect post-punk mixtape; both a celebration of the genre and simultaneously a wide-arching examination of its many styles and offshoots from traditionalist to breaking point – mottled as it is with punk, electro, darkwave, slacker rock, and a whole bank of black-lit synthesisers, as first heard in the engulfing swarm of ‘Glass’.
Having graduated from bedroom project to the garage (on debut album Henge Beat), Typical System show cases the classier production needed to qualify their stylistic shifts, but even as the post-punk DNA gets spliced and fermented, the quintet always retain their sharp, steely-eyed core and raw conviction. Total Control, indeed.

Overall, it’s a thrillingly bleak listen too. Though the LP ends on an a-typically upbeat note – in the left-field pop of ‘Safety Net’ – for the most part it sounds disturbed and darkened, but always pumping with the visceral thrill of energy and exorcism. Plus there’s the skewering worldview of Dan Stewart’s lyrics and deliver, offering plenty for the Nietzsche buffs and nihilists to ponder upon (scope the oppressive grind of ‘Black Spring’ for one).

Though only still fresh to many ears given it was released less than a month agoTypical System more than earns its place among the year’s best releases so far, displaying enough depth and stamina to make it all the way through to year’s end. Don’t be surprised when it turns up on ‘Best of 2014’ and ‘Top Local Release’ rankings a plenty come December.

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