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The Best Minnesota Albums of 2014

A handful of records always change the course of local conversation each year. It could be a new production technique or a very old one. Sometimes there's a thematic breakthrough, the capturing of a well-honed live aesthetic, or the stars just align during a concentrated writing session, but the finished songs hang together like they've always belonged that way.

Here are our favorite albums to rise up from the Minnesota community from this past year.

See also:
Year in Music 2014: A Twin Cities Rock 'n' Roll Yearbook

Haley Bonar, Last War

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Last War has a darker sonic palette than Haley Bonar's traditional idiom. The album sheds the spare folk and Americana roots found in Bonar's earlier recordings in favor of icy synthesizers and driving bass, but is less jarring than one might assume. Time spent blowing off steam with her no-wave supergroup Gramma's Boyfriend is a clue to the production shifts, but the austere melancholy of Bonar's previous melodies remains. Instantly accessible singles like "Kill the Fun" and "No Sensitive Man" have inviting, widescreen hooks, but dabs of angular, distorted guitar and metallic bass can be prickly and cold to the touch. --Zach McCormick

Hollow Boys, Believe in Nothing

The live presence of gothgaze trio Hollow Boys is a surly, pulverizing wall of distortion, but they make some truly gorgeous records. Believe in Nothing crunches harder than their 2013 LP It's True, but there's still a frosting of jangling pop gracing their mountain of sludge and hypnotic rhythm. Chalk that up to guitarist/singer Ali Jaafar, who engineered this album and other local records with the help of bassist Cole Benson in his own Ecstattic Studio. Jaafar's voice grows ever stronger with each Hollow Boys release and this time, paired with drummer and partner Monica Coleslaw's harmonies, it can swing from Robert Smith pretty to doomy in a single track. --Zach McCormick

See also:
The Best Minnesota Punk Albums of 2014

Howler, World of Joy

Jordan Gatesmith and his band of merry men spent more than a year and a half seasoning their sound on the road leading up to the release of their second album, World of Joy. While the album's still full of that patented Howler 'tude that's made them overnight rock stars in Europe, the surfy flavor is all but forgotten and the guitars are louder and nastier than ever. Gatesmith's growth as a songwriter is apparent, skewering the trendy celebrity culture that tried to absorb his band on tracks like "Yacht Boys," and local idol worship on "Don't Wanna." It's a joyful, snotty middle finger to anyone who called this band a gimmick. --Zach McCormick

Leisure Birds, Tetrahedron

Leisure Birds' synth-drenched third album, Tetrahedron, sounds like Air landed on a moon orbiting 1979-era Gary Numan. A close descendent of the ambient rock of 2012's Globe Master, its seven songs generate saturnine, electro-psych grooves that provide plenty of sonic space for the listener to get lost. Layers of electronic effects and synthy flourishes created by vocalist Jake Luck and Collin Gorman Weiland sit atop Cory Carlson and Alex Achen's droning, repetitive beats. The songs never get bogged down by their own lofty intentions -- or how other people perceive them. --Erik Thompson

Jeremy Messersmith, Heart Murmurs

With more distorted electric guitar, kick drum, and sheer volume than any previous Jeremy Messersmith album, Heart Murmurs just rocks -- in the Bruce Springsteen or Thom Yorke sense. His melodramatic acoustic pop has gradually ballooned to a roomful of players -- notably the Hang Ups/Owls frontman Brian Tighe and studio pro Andy Thompson -- who've advanced his words from plain text to detailed calligraphy. Local radio favorites "Ghost" and "Tourniquet" overflow with raw emotion, and the rest of the album is peppered with resonant seasonal reflection. --Reed Fischer

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The Miami Dolphins, Becky

The Miami Dolphins have for several years been operating on the fringes of a scene that lives for weird, but seem to have finally found their poise and identity with Becky. Singer Elizabeth Bambery howls and squeaks like she's auditioning for Melt Banana, while the band, led by Patrick Larkin's candied napalm guitar, tumbles through 70-second songs like they're on the edge of total collapse. No-wave noise might be the pallete that the Dolphins draw from, but this time out the band has embraced the barbed, satirical pop that they've shown traces of in the past on songs like "Pucker Upper." --Zach McCormick

Rupert Angeleyes, Young Sunset

Rupert Angeleyes mastermind Kyle Sobczak's lyrical character development and psychedelic pop musicianship have hit a new high on his fourth album, Young Sunset. The resounding harmonies, guitar licks, and vintage synth flourishes are smarter, tighter, and fiercer, making "that mama's boy drinking champagne with all the girls" detailed on the browbeating "Delicate Guy" even more melodramatic than it sounds. With nods to the Kinks, Thin Lizzy, and T. Rex, the themes of envy, backstabbing, paper-thin hearts, and a slow descent into alcoholism are anything but a bummer. --Reed Fischer

The Stand4rd, The Stand4rd

The Stand4rd is one of the biggest Twin Cities music exports we've had since Atmosphere. Credit Spooky Black's viral attention, in part, but mostly it's due to the fact that they're truly on to something. The quartet's hip-hop and R&B music is startlingly contemporary, pulling inspiration from the Drakes and the Futures and the James Blakes, while pushing past to find their own distinct sound. Their young hunger and unrestricted approach have placed Allan Kingdom, Bobby Raps, Psymun, and Spooky ahead of the curve, crafting a legitimately original record that progresses on-trend ideas instead of just chasing them. --Jack Spencer

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See also:
The Best Minnesota Rap Albums of 2014

We Are the Willows, Picture [Portrait]

Using the delicate love letters his future grandpa sent to his future grandma, We Are the Willows frontman Peter Miller has woven a timeless lyrical fabric. Picture [Portrait] is a reminder of the myriad ways words can convey getting one's heart getting caught in one's throat, and its chamber-pop score -- strings, banjo, and just enough dissonant noise -- brings to life the plight of an obviously pining lover off fighting an ugly war. Miller's tender voice shows he internalized these letters, and the seamless blending with the rest of the band shows a connected whole. --Reed Fischer

Toki Wright & Big Cats, Pangaea

The sonic chemistry between Toki Wright and Big Cats is evident everywhere on Pangaea, a painstakingly minimal and textured exploration of contemplative hip-hop. It's multi-layered and thought-provoking, finding Toki at his most meditative over some of the best production Cats has been involved in over his impressive career. The vibe they've concocted is unlike most of the current rap landscape, finding a downtempo space to work through larger ideas about society, self, and politics. --Jack Spencer

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