Best of 2014: Michael Belt’s Tops of the year


Foo FightersSonic Highways
The Foos have been very busy this year. Their eighth full-length, Sonic Highways, was accompanied by an eponymous HBO series that frontman Dave Grohl describes as “a love letter to American music”. I have yet to watch the show but Grohl’s statement is definitely applicable to the record as well. With eight grandiose tracks that draw influence from numerous subsets of American music, it’s their most ambitious record to date.


The Neighbourhood#000000 & #FFFFFF
After the commercial success of their debut record, I Love You, The Neighbourhood decided to delve into hip-hop & release a mixtape entitled #000000 & #FFFFFF (the HTML color codes for Black & White, respectively). It’s a bold release that’s firmly grounded in both alt. rock & hip-hop. Old fans and new alike won’t be disappointed.


Taylor Swift1989
It’s time to stop finding reasons to hate Taylor Swift. On her fifth full-length, 1989, she’s matured both her sound, abandoning her country roots in favor of more accessible pop sound, and her lyricism, ranging from her typical stories about her love life to brushing off negative publicity to finally finding solace in friends rather than a significant other. It’s infectious, far from timid, and easily her best work yet.


Foster The PeopleSupermodel
After breaking out in 2011 with “Pumped Up Kicks” many assumed that Foster The People’s follow-up to Torches would either result in more of the same or lack any commercial hits. There’s truth in both of these assumptions. Their sophomore effort, Supermodel, is definitely not as accessible as Torches, but there’s a clear sense of familiarity present throughout the sonically lush soundscapes & focused lyricism of this record. It’s some of their strongest work to date. Those that dare to listen will find themselves plugged-in from start to finish.


Lana Del ReyUltraviolence
After the success of Born to Die, its companion EP, Paradise, and songs from films like The Great Gatsby & Maleficent, Lana Del Rey (born Elizabeth Grant) decided to abandon her commercially-accepted trip-hop sound in favor of a slightly-more classic rock influenced record. Produced by The Black Keys frontman Dan Auerbach, Ultraviolence is musically a darker and more mature record that its predecessor, but its lyrically rooted in the glamour and pain that her audience has come to love about her work. All-in-all, a solid follow-up.


HalfNoiseVolcano Crowe
Former Paramore drummer Zac Farro has come a long way with his new project HalfNoise. After a self-titled EP in 2012 and recognition from some of his former bandmates, his debut full-length, Volcano Crowe, only solidifies his success and talents as a musician. Recorded entirely in New Zealand, the record does a great job of musically personifying his surroundings at the time, creating vast environments that demand multiple listens.


SullivanHeavy Is the Head
Former Tooth & Nail rock band Sullivan has returned to the music industry after a seven year absence. Their comeback record, Heavy Is the Head, delivers on nearly every level. Lead singer Brooks Paschal has definitely improved his delivery, and the music itself is rooted in the sounds of the band’s previous efforts, but is noticeably more mature. If you’ve ever considered familiarizing yourself with Sullivan, now is the time.


Lykke LiI Never Learn
Swedish indie-pop artist Lykke Li has returned with her third full-length album, I Never Learn. Described as the third and final chapter in a trilogy of releases, she teamed up with Bjӧrn Yttling and Greg Kurstin to deliver what is arguably her best effort yet. Deeply haunting and beautiful, both musically and lyrically, this record is definitely one that requires multiple listens to absorb all that it has to offer.


alt-JThis Is All Yours
English alternative band alt-J have garnered critical and commercial success for their debut LP, An Awesome Wave. After numerous shows and a Mercury Prize win, they released their follow-up record, This Is All Yours. The lack of former bass player Gwil Sainsbury gives them more room for experimentation without hindering the quality of the music. Not one song is out of place on this record (even the Miley Cyrus sampling “Hunger of the Pine”).


BastilleVS. (Other People’s Heartache, Pt. III)
Bastille is one of those bands that consistently amazes me with each release. After heavy touring for their debut LP, Bad Blood, and the successful radio single that is “Pompeii”, Dan Smith & friends decided to release a new mixtape in their Other People’s Heartache series. Unlike the previous two installments, which were mostly covers and some originals, VS. is made up entirely of original material with collaborations from HAIM, Angel Haze, MNEK, Grades, F*U*G*Z & more. While not as accessible as their other releases, it’s definitely one of their most creative.


From Indian LakesAbsent Sounds
The new From Indian Lakes LP, Absent Sounds, is one of those records that took me multiple listens to appreciate. I hadn’t heard much about them until a friend recommended them to me, so I didn’t know what to expect going in, but around my third listen or so, everything started to click. The record is vastly lush, undeniably focused and sonically expansive, which is why it requires multiple listens. You truly have to embrace every element to be drawn in, and when you are, you won’t want to put it down.


Jack WhiteLazaretto
Jack White’s second solo-album, Lazaretto, wastes no time trying to draw the listener in. Given the success of Blunderbuss, it’s pretty clear that Lazaretto would improve upon the former’s strengths, but nobody could’ve predicted the extent to which it eventually did. Straight-forward and energetic, the record continues to perfectly blend his love of rock and folk but to an even greater and more-focused degree; one minute somber, the next all over the place. One can only wonder where Jack White can go from here.


St. VincentSt. Vincent
Annie Clark’s self-titled fourth record as St. Vincent is one of the boldest albums that any artist has made in 2014. Described by Clark as “more confident” than her previous records, St. Vincent is an innovative, dynamic collection of stories and statements concerning power, faith, and our obsessive tendencies to nurture ideal, digital, versions of ourselves. Lyrically serious while musically playful, St. Vincent is a record for the masses.


Young FathersDead
Young Fathers have crafted one of 2014’s finest hip-hop records with Dead. After two critically acclaimed mixtapes, the Scottish trio unleashed a personal, vivid and emotional collection of songs that can only be described as captivating. A mix of unconventional instrumentation and lyrical content that can be difficult to comprehend at times, Dead is a powerhouse of a record. I haven’t heard this much emotion in a hip-hop record since Kanye West’s Yeezus. Given that it won the Mercury Prize this year, it’s hard to pass up an album like this.


FKA twigsLP1
LP1 is perhaps the most talked about debut album of any artist in 2014. FKA twigs (whose real name is Tahliah Barnett) became prominently recognized in smaller circles after appearing as a backup dancer in music videos for Ed Sheeran, Kylie Minogue, and Jessie J, but it wasn’t until the release of LP1, that she found commercial success in the music industry. Dark and ethereal, LP1 is a captivating R&B record that almost reminds me of James Blake’s eponymous debut in 2011. Her production style is frantic but focused, relying on unconventional sounds and patterns to evoke strong imagery in the minds of all listeners. Expect even greater success from FKA twigs in the near future.


Equal parts Fiona Apple, The Weeknd & Lauryn Hill, (Jillian) Banks released an astonishing debut record in 2014 with Goddess. While the album is mainly made up of material from her first two EPs, Fall Over and London, it features a large amount of new material as well. She has impressive control of her voice, dynamically resonating between dark R&B and soulful piano. While some tracks are stronger than others, there’s not one weak track on this record. It’s an autobiographical journey that will leave each listener pleasantly surprised.


Bleachers Strange Desire
fun. guitarist Jack Antonoff had previously been a member of Steel Train, but after they decided to disband, he committed to fun. full-time. Their commercial and critical success with their sophomore record Some Nights gave him the opportunity to write songs with artists like Taylor Swift, Sara Bareilles, Tegan and Sara, and Christina Perri, and to pursue other musical ventures as well. Enter Bleachers. Their debut record, Strange Desire, was co-produced with John Hill and Vince Clarke (of Erasure and Depeche Mode fame), and feels like a John Hughes film in audio form. His songwriting skills and production work are vivid and vastly layered, and guest vocals from Grimes and Yoko Ono make it surprisingly more enjoyable. It stands on its own without having to ride the success of Some Nights and is one of 2014’s best records.


Charli XCXSucker
Unless you’ve been living under a rock the past two years, you’ve probably heard the name Charli XCX thrown around. Aside from her critically acclaimed debut record, True Romance, she’s found commercial success with  Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy” and Icona Pop’s “I Love It”, as well as with her song “Boom Clap”. Her sophomore effort, Sucker, is her strongest yet. Whereas True Romance was electropop, Sucker is a full-blown punk pop record, with contributions from Rivers Cuomo of Weezer and Greg Kurstin. As a whole, the record is a middle finger to the music industry and its tendency to produce thoughtless pop music. Charli XCX knows what she wants for her music and pulls it off flawlessly. Some will brush it off as being too mainstream, but critically and commercially, Sucker is the best pop record released this year.


Kings KaleidoscopeBecoming Who We Are
A ten piece worship group from Seattle, Kings Kaleidoscope released their debut full-length this year with Becoming Who We Are. Originally from Mars Hill Church (now with Tooth & Nail/BadChristian Music), the band had released four EPs that had garnered praise from numerous sources, but with Becoming Who We Are, they received even greater critical acclaim than before. The record is 17 tracks long, and each track is heavily layered with numerous synthesizers, guitars, horns, drums & percussion, and just about any instrument you can think of. It’s a vivid collection of songs that many listeners will enjoy. They’ve seemed to bridge the originality gap that most “Christian artists” haven’t been able to. If you’re a follower of Jesus Christ and enjoy well-thought out worship music, Becoming Who We Are is definitely for you.


Royal BloodRoyal Blood
2014 was the year that “minimalist rock” gained widespread recognition. Usually made up of 2 members, one being a vocalist/multi-instrumentalist, the other being a drummer, minimalist rock bands thrive on creating vast soundscapes with very little instrumentation. One band that falls into that category is Royal Blood. Hailing from Brighton, England, their debut, self-titled LP is a short but highly impressive collection of straight-forward and accessible rock songs. Frontman Mike Kerr plays his bass like a regular guitar, which produces a near-identical but distinguishable result, and drummer Ben Thatcher plays with a sense of focus and awareness that compliments Kerr’s guitar work well. All in all, it’s a very solid debut record. Expect great things from Royal Blood in the near future.


68In Humor & Sadness
Another pioneer of minimalist rock, ‘68 unleashed a monster of a debut record with In Humor and Sadness, and that’s a compliment. Former frontman of The Chariot Josh Scogin has found his best musical outlet yet. With Scogin on guitar and Michael McClellan on drums, the duo ventures into a chaotic abyss of loop pedals and distortion. It works extremely well, coming across as the perfect mix of The Black Keys and Bleach-era Nirvana. It’s enjoyable, organized chaos that only Josh Scogin could pull off. He took the best of Norma Jean and The Chariot with him and put it to use on a smaller scale. Granted, In Humor and Sadness isn’t for everyone, but many who admired Scogin’s previous work will fall in love with ‘68.


Kate TempestEverybody Down
If there’s any debut record released in 2014 that I would encourage all of humanity to listen to, it’s definitely Everybody Down. Recognized and awarded for her poetry, stage work, and literature, Kate Tempest decided to return to her first love and release a solo record of hip-hop songs. Everybody Down is more-or-less an audio version of her debut novel that’s currently in the works. Set in London, the record is a story of love, trust, morality, and downright madness, and Tempest delivers it with precision and emotion. Lyrically inspiring and musically gripping, the record demands numerous listens given it’s massive attention to detail. It took nearly 20-30 listens to process how great Everybody Down truly is, and I’m still finding more to enjoy with each new listen. It’s a groundbreaking record, and easily the best debut of the year.


SwitchfootFading West
Switchfoot has been my favorite band since the 5th grade. Every album of theirs has been captivating and unique, and Fading West is no exception. Released in conjunction with a documentary of the same name, Fading West is Switchfoot’s most accessible record since The Beautiful Letdown. Taking on more of a pop-rock approach than their previous records, Switchfoot has crafted, musically and lyrically, some of their strongest work to date. Jon Foreman’s lyricism is once again inspiring and the instrumentation is more diverse than ever. A companion EP, The Edge of the Earth, is also a great listen, and while I wouldn’t consider it their greatest album (Vice Verses still blows me away with each listen), Fading West is definitely among them.


Leave it to Anberlin to go out with a bang. After 12 years of critical and commercial success, the Florida-based quartet decided to part ways after a final tour and one last record, entitled Lowborn. With complete creative freedom and years of experience in tow, Anberlin has crafted their strongest record to date. Musically it’s borderline alt-rock/80’s new wave, combining the best elements of their previous six records with newer influences. Lyrically, there’s an overarching theme of finality that’s sometimes difficult to accept, but Stephen Christian’s lyricism is at its most honest and most beautiful. Some long-time fans will argue that Lowborn is a letdown, given it’s lack of coherency and its short run-time, but I disagree. Lowborn is a beautiful, solid body of work that represents everything Anberlin is. Godspeed, gentlemen.


There’s not a lot I could say about Ixora that I haven’t already said (that’s why you can read my full-length review of the record here). In short, Copeland has returned to bring us their first record in six years, and the wait most definitely paid off. Musically, it picks up where You Are My Sunshine left off but ventures into new, experimental territory as well. Lyrically, it’s more focused and more mature than ever before, reaching emotional depths that their first four record couldn’t. Every track is painstakingly beautiful and coherent with the ambience of the record. It’s easily their best album to date. It’s also in the front-running for being my new favorite album of all time. Do not pass this record up. Compared to any other release in 2014, it’s unmatched. Ixora is the best album you’ll hear all year.

Top Songs of 2014

2014 was an extremely good year for music. With many great releases came many great songs. Many is obviously an understatement here. It would take quite a long time to talk about every great song released this year so I’ve picked a handful of my favorites. They’re not ranked in any particular order. Hope everyone enjoys.

Copeland – “I Can Make You Feel Young Again”
Every track on the new Copeland record, Ixora, is fantastic, but “I Can Make You Feel Young Again” stands out among the rest. It’s a darker song in their catalog, but the instrumentation is breathtaking. What starts out minimal with just a standard band setup grows into a multi-layered orchestra. It’s grandiose and haunting, making for a mind-blowing listening experience.


Anberlin – “Stranger Ways”
I could write in-depth about each track on Anberlin’s final album, Lowborn. No two tracks are remotely alike, which makes for a slightly incoherent listening experience, which isn’t bad. However, if there’s one track that describes the feel of the record as a whole, it’s “Stranger Ways”. You can’t really call it a lead single but that’s essentially what it is. It has nearly everything we’ve come to love about Anberlin; vague but aware lyricism, eclectic instrumentation, soaring vocals from Stephen Christian, etc. Bordering on 80’s new wave, it’s just one of those songs that fits well within the rest of the tracks. Sure, people won’t like it because of how different it is, but I think it represents how much Anberlin has evolved over the past twelve years. Plus I remember hearing a demo of the song earlier in the year and I enjoy comparing demos with their respective studio versions. It’s a great way to hear how the track has evolved as well.


JMR – “Shivers”
If you’re not familiar with JMR yet, you probably will be by next year. Born Joshua Michael Robinson, he quietly released his debut a few years ago but is now looking to reestablish his place in the music industry. His new work is more R&B influenced and works quite well. “Shivers” showcases both his impressive vocal range and his excellent production work. With a proper debut LP on the horizon, it’s time the world knew about JMR. If you’re a fan of James Blake, The Weeknd, or anyone of the like, you’ll love “Shivers”.

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Kate Tempest – “Marshall Law”
As previously stated, the attention to detail on Kate Tempest’s Everybody Down is marvelous. Each track should be enjoyed in order to fully understand this body of work. The opening track, “Marshall Law” sets the stage quite well. She doesn’t waste a minute diving into the story of the record. Her lyricism is vivid enough for the listener to picture the scenario in their head. The music is the emotional aid to the lyrics, so the effect that both have together is what eventually draws the listener in even more as the record progresses. Simply incredible.

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Banks – “Brain”
No track on Banks’ debut, Goddess, showcases her range like “Brain”. While it’s musically dark, and reminiscent of The Weeknd almost, it doesn’t distract from her impressive pipes. She starts in a lower register, but as the song progresses, she reaches the peak of her range and does it with enough power to be effective but not too much power to come across as straining. I can’t think of a better introductory track than “Brain”.

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FKA twigs – “Two Weeks”
FKA twigs’ LP1 is a very complex record to comprehend. Its unique production is far from accessible by most listeners. “Two Weeks” is probably the easiest to enjoy given it’s simplistic song structure. But don’t be fooled. The production and mystique is still there. It’s an earworm of a track, with unconventional instrumentation and patterns, catchy enough to demand multiple listens. The music video also showcases her dancing abilities as well, which work exceptionally well live.


From Indian Lakes – “Breathe, Desperately”
“Breathe, Desperately” is one of the standout tracks on the new From Indian Lakes record, Absent Sounds. Whereas the music is sonically impressive, it’s the lyricism that drew me in. The opening line of the chorus, “We breathe so desperately, as if it’s the only thing we need, And we don’t care if it’s not breathing honestly…” was very clever in my opinion. The track is a great representation of the record as a whole, leaving the listener wanting more.


Coldplay – Midnight
Love them or hate them, there’s something captivating about Coldplay’s “Midnight”. Perhaps it’s that it sounds nothing like the rest of their sixth studio album, Ghost Stories. Perhaps it’s the fact that it sounds like a Bon Iver b-side. Perhaps it’s the vocoder that Chris Martin’s voice is fed through. Perhaps it’s the fact that it’s such a departure from the stadium anthems of their previous LP, Mylo Xyloto. Whatever it is, it’s highly enjoyable and my new favorite track of theirs.


The 1975 – “Medicine”
After the success of their four EPs and their debut self-titled LP, The 1975 have returned with a new song. Meant for Zane Lowe’s BBC Radio 1 rescore of the Ryan Gosling film, Drive, “Medicine” is a ethereal track that’s reminiscent of their song “Me” from their Music For Cars EP. Having seen the alternate version of Drive, I can say without a doubt this was the best track in the film. The placement was very appropriate in the context of the story and I couldn’t stop listening afterwards. It makes me even more excited for their new LP.

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Favorite Album Art

I’m a very visual person. I enjoy having a visual aid to go with music, books, etc. I’ve always been told not to judge a book (or record in this case) by its cover. I’ve now found this statement to be only somewhat true. Sometimes an album cover can tell you a lot, or nothing at all, about the record. Regardless of how well it correlates to the sound of the record as a whole, album art can help trigger a listen or even a purchase of an album, or instill a sense of excitement. With that in mind, here are some of my favorite album covers of 2014.









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