Sisters Johanna and Klara Söderberg got their own postage stamp this year in their native Sweden, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves -- First Aid Kit still has plenty of room for growth in America, even if they’ve got the Scandinavian Americana market cornered. “Silver Lining” is the best example of their harmonic folk playbook so far: sepia-toned strings, a beat as breezy as the American prairies they’ve perhaps never seen, and a pair of voices that have clearly been combining for a long, long time. They covered Simon & Garfunkel’s “America” at Bonnaroo this year, and a track like this shows they’ve certainly found it.
8. Angel Olsen, “White Fire”
And looking past First Aid Kit, 2014 was full of evocative female vocalists mastering the emotional landscape reserved mainly for sensitive dudes in the last few years. Lana Del Rey, Lykke Li, and Sharon Van Etten’s albums all exemplified this, but it doesn’t get much deeper than Angel Olsen’s seven-minute self-therapy session “White Fire” from her LP Burn Your Fire For No Witness. “If you've still got some light in you then go before it's gone,” Olsen offers. As a droning trip of rhythmic guitar plucking nears its end, she turns her innermost thoughts outward into advice: “Burn your fire for no witness, it's the only way it's done.” When your album’s title comes from its harrowing lyrical climax, you’re doing feelings right.
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7. Beach Slang, “Filthy Luck”
Their name sounds like a chillwavey buzz band from four years ago, but don’t go judging a book by its cover. The members of Philadelphia’s Beach Slang have been playing in punk bands since before the Replacements first broke up, so when this highlight from their debut EP sounds a great deal like Westerberg and company, or even early Gaslight Anthem, it’s pretty darn sincere. Singing longingly about “this town” and amps turned “up to nine”? Aside from being a Philly band with “beach” in its name, this is about as sincere as sincere gets.
6. Mastodon, “High Road”
The major label metal album is a dying breed, but Mastodon tried their best to keep it from going quietly. Once More ‘Round the Sun didn’t change the game and it wasn’t another hyper-ambitious concept album, but did anything else that touched our Mainstream Rock Songs chart pummel like “The High Road”? Mastodon master their instruments as well as anyone who’s dominated the metal discussion as long as they have; here, it’s the hooks that go for the jugular and make even the non-metalheads take notice.
5. White Lung, “Down It Goes”
Just like pop-punk, regular ol’ punk -- like White Lung’s shred-heavy, hardcore-tinged glory -- might as well exist in a different planet than the mainstream music industry these days. Major labels might not be scouting the indies much, but that hasn’t stopped an act like White Lung from sounding completely vital to what's going on beneath the surface. On “Down It Goes,” frontwoman Mish Way opens by singing “I’m not as strong as you” to her slimy subject, then nonetheless asserts herself over a blistering two-and-a-half minutes. Also, shredding.
4. The Griswolds, “Beware the Dog”
There was no Vampire Weekend album in 2014, so without a clear favorite for the indie pop crown, Sydney, Australia’s Griswolds came out swinging. Their debut Be Impressive was no Modern Vampires of the City, but hey, alternative radio was much obliged for this peppy bit of earworm that’s part cheerleading chant, and probably the happiest song to ever include the words “fucking crazy.” It saw nowhere near the attention of Magic’s “Rude” or Bastille’s “Pompeii,” but in terms of mainstream indie pop (if such a genre doesn’t collapse beneath its own oxymoron), this was the biggest jam of 2014.
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3. Cloud Nothings, “I’m Not Part Of Me”
After a couple albums of reimagining Blink-182’s Dude Ranch (which there’s absolutely nothing wrong with) Cleveland’s now-greatest punk band Cloud Nothings hunkered down with Steve Albini for 2012’s breakout LP Attack On Memory. On this year’s Here and Nowhere Else, they managed to reach that bar again, even without Albini’s help. On the singles front, they went even better than reaching the bar, as “I’m Not Part Of Me” is one of the best stand-alone punk songs in recent years. Dylan Baldi’s band has been scorching and catchy before, but never so simultaneous and seamlessly as on Here and Nowhere Else’s final track.
2. Grimes ft. Blood Diamonds, “Go”
Our second best alternative song of 2014 doesn’t sound much like traditional alternative, but seldom is Grimes traditional anything -- and if we can call Lorde a rock artist, we can certainly include a kindred creative spirit here. Claire Boucher kept us waiting with bated breath throughout 2014, and amongst all the thoughtful think pieces and news of brushing shoulders with Jay Z, we only got this one new studio track (originally written for Rihanna) -- and news that she scrapped the rest of her new album. Still, this lone track of otherworldly EDM was worth more time than most artists' entire albums. If the long-awaited follow up to 2012’s Visions sounds completely different, at least we got to know Grimes and Blood Diamonds, the intergalactic bass-droppers, for a little while.
Watch Grimes & Blood Diamonds Take on Dante’s ‘Inferno’ in ‘Go’ Video
1. Sleater-Kinney, “Bury Our Friends”
Buzz band alert! “Bury Our Friends” popped up on the Emerging Artists tally of Billboard’s Twitter Real-Time Charts in October and we’ve been warming up to these fresh faces ever since.
Okay, we digress. Less than 50,000 Twitter followers and no top 50 hit will land you on Emerging Artists, even if you’re a legendary punk band that’s been around since the mid ‘90s.
Not only did Carrie Brownstein, Corin Tucker and Janet Weiss return, they did so with purpose, ready to show the kids a thing or two. The resurrected Sleater-Kinney blasted us with “Bury Our Idols," a sledgehammer of a rock song and a call to arms: “We're wild and weary but we won't give in!”
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And the response has been great, with an instantly sold out tour and a second batch of shows added this week. For the causes they’re rallying, Sleater-Kinney’s ongoing reformation proves how a beloved band’s legend -- and its message -- can actually blossom in its absence.