The 30 Best Albums of the Decade: 1-10

Check out part one and part two of our Best Albums of the Decade feature.

10. Kacey Musgraves – Golden Hour

If the prevailing sentiment of the last half of this decade has been one of dread, Kacey Musgraves certainly delivered a dose of warmth and comfort at just the right time. Golden Hour captures the confessional, revealing songwriting that only the best country albums seem to harness. Musgraves looks for, and actually finds, beauty in common places, reminding us that the world around us is still full of magic and wonder. She also makes a clear point to bend the rules set by country music gatekeepers, effectively opening the door to those that have traditionally been uninvited. In doing so, she created an album with a heartbeat designed to comfort all who come close. – Kiel Hauck

9. Lorde – Melodrama

Lorde has been one of the defining artists of the past decade. She brought a refresher to pop music with 2013’s Pure Heroine, but her showstopper is 2017’s Melodrama. Written alongside her friend Jack Antonoff, the album is the about the woes of the end of adolescence. It’s wrapped up into a beautiful, cohesive experience and was absolutely robbed of Album of the Year at the Grammys. And that’s the tea. – Nadia Paiva

8. Aaron West and the Roaring Twenties – We Don’t Have Each Other

Aaron West is a truly unique artist. The autobiographical album, We Don’t Have Each Other traces the course of a man breaking in every conceivable way until the only recourse is to pick himself up. Throughout the album, Dan Campbell’s attention to detail is astounding. Steeped in Springsteen-esque Americana, the album plays like a living novel to the point where Aaron feels almost too real. We Don’t Have Each Other is an insanely depressing album, but ends with hope for redemption. Accepting his own faults and ready to finally fight back, We Don’t Have Each Other explores the extremes of humanity, and the will to make things right. – Kyle Schultz

7. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly

No album this decade captured the state of America so poignantly, purposefully and powerfully as To Pimp a Butterfly. During a three-album stretch that simply feels peerless, it’s hard to call the album Kendrick Lamar’s masterpiece, but you wouldn’t be wrong to do so. To Pimp weaves jazz, soul and hip hop together, winding us through the black experience and shining a piercing light on our country’s deepest flaws and scars. It’s a deep, spellbinding work that can’t be unpacked in one sitting, but has moments of obvious illumination like “Alright” – the album’s centerpiece and a protest anthem for the most important movement of the decade. – KH

6. Beyoncé – Lemonade

The 2010s were a decade of basically pitting artists against each other with who could release an album in the most viral way. Beyoncé pioneered this with not one, but two surprise album releases, including Lemonade in 2016. The album revolves around the concept of Jay-Z’s infidelity and I think that was what made it stick with us. While the dramatic delivery of the album certainly contributes to its inclusion here, it’s the expression of feminine beauty, grace and empowerment that has made Lemonade stay in our minds. – NP

5. Against Me – Transgender Dysphoria Blues

Transgender Dysphoria Blues is a groundbreaking album in many ways. It pulls no punches in terms of sound or language, and dives face-first into the material to have the most impact. While Transgender Dysphoria Blues harnesses a sound reminiscent of the band’s earlier records, it sets itselt apart in just how brutal of a concept the album is to people who don’t understand the struggle of someone preparing for or going through body dysphoria. The album is astonishing in many ways and it leaves a legacy as one of the first true trans-positive records in punk rock. That is does so without blinking, hiding a single hateful emotion, or sidestepping painful language is to be admired. – KS

4. Carly Rae Jepsen – E-MO-TION

The greatest and most dazzling pop album of the 2010s came from someone who had embodied the fleeting nature of pop stardom early in the decade. Instead of chasing the rush of “Call Me Maybe”, Carly Rae Jepsen seized a place as an unexpected indie darling with Emotion and ushered in a new wave of 80s-inspiration that infected nearly every pop release that came after it. Aside from its delightful sonic execution, Jepsen succeeds throughout Emotion by being relatable, without a hint of irony. From the blissful shoulder-brushing of “Boy Problems” to the sultry desire of “Run Away with Me”, Jepsen runs the gamut of relationship experiences, transforming herself into the best friend with whom everyone can share their secrets. – KH

3. The 1975 – A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships

The 1975 have seamlessly combined electro pop with moody alternative rock through their past few albums, but with their latest, A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships, they’ve taken a different lyrical path. Gone are their days of singing about partying and recreational drug use, and here to stay are heavier songs about the decline of humanity, climate change and the toll the aforementioned drug use has on life. The 1975 are obsessed with bettering their audience’s critical thinking skills, and that’s something that is desperately needed in today’s world. – NP

2. The Wonder Years – Suburbia I’ve Given You All and Now I’m Nothing

During the first part of the decade, The Wonder Years somehow tapped into the exact emotions that seemingly an entire generation were feeling in unison. Suburbia I’ve Given You All and Now I’m Nothing perfectly captured the sensations of fear, hope and wonder of finding yourself at the crossroads of adulthood and forging your own destiny. 

Suburbia taps into the loneliness of leaving the comfort of college, the taxing labor of minimum wage jobs, and the nostalgia of pure joy found with old friends. Although The Wonder Years initially gained attention for music that looked at the world in a positive light (The Upsides), Suburbia didn’t try to hide itself behind this monicker. Instead, the album took a real look at struggling to find your place in a world that seemed brand new to a young adult. The warcry lyrics of, “It’s not about forcing happiness / It’s about not letting sadness win” made the band eternal. 

Suburbia somehow pays homage to pop punk throughout the last decade while forging its own identity. It showed us, for the first time, who The Wonder Years were and set the bar higher for their peers. – KS

1. Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

The best album of the 2010s not only laid the foundation for everything that was to follow this decade, it completely re-contextualized its creator and led us to question our own presumptions and beliefs. At its core, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is rumination on fame and celebrity, scratching and gnawing at the grim truths often covered by limelight. Track after track, Kanye West tunnels deeper into his own psyche, leaving no stone unturned and no train of thought unexplored, no matter how repulsive or gaudy it may be. Does he want us to lean closer or run away in distress? West seems to leave the choice to us.

From a strictly musical standpoint, Fantasy is a kitchen sink album in which every detail has been painstakingly placed and scrutinized over. The album is as grandiose as any hip hop or pop release in memory, and is specifically built to tower to a height of instability. This fact seems negligently bold when one remembers what was at stake. After a year of exile, West’s public standing was at an all time low and it seemed wholly possible that his career as a respected artist was hanging in the balance.

But that’s what makes Kanye West the defining celebrity of our time, for better or for worse. His nagging insistence on chipping away at his own essence and persona, leaning into his worst tendencies as a heel, have led to both demise and nirvana. It’s that ugly predisposition that led to the creation of this masterpiece and defined a decade of artistic explorations into dark recesses and uncomfortable introspection. – KH

Posted by Kiel Hauck

Review: Aaron West and The Roaring Twenties – Routine Maintenance

At its core, Aaron West and The Roaring Twenties is a story about rebirth. Singer and songwriter Dan Campbell’s debut album, We Don’t Have Each Other begins with Aaron breaking down completely after the death of his father, dealing with a miscarriage, and losing his wife. As that album closes, Aaron gives the first glimpse of healing – he is determined to return to his wife in New York. That hope to fix things is what drives the sequel album, Routine Maintenance. Although Campbell could have continued breaking Aaron down, Routine Maintenance vividly explores how Aaron finds meaning in life again and why family is worth fighting for.

You can buy or stream Routine Maintenance on Apple Music.

Dan Campbell, the singer for pop punk wunderkind group The Wonder Years, has built a career off of writing intense, relatable lyrics and stories. Aaron West, his first fictional creation, is a fully formed person. Like its predecessor, Routine Maintenance is essentially a novel set to music. Aaron hitchhikes to Los Angeles (“Bury Me Anywhere Else”), and forms a successful band (“Runnin’ Toward The Light”) in explicit detail. The anxiety of being in a divorce lawyer’s office is especially rich (“Just Sign the Papers”).

However, this Aaron is hopeful. We’ve already seen him broken and homeless. Routine Maintenance shows how Aaron becomes a dependable person again in incremental steps. The tragedies he faces aren’t those within him anymore and he discovers how to step up to meet them.

Much like the previous album and EP, Routine Maintenance relishes in Americana. Comparisons to Bruce Springsteen are impossible not to mention, especially with the bluesy harmonica (“Rosa & Reseda”) and killer saxophone (“Bury Me Anywhere Else”). This album expands the folk rock sound of previous releases with deeper horn sections, slide guitar and a mesmerizing banjo. Ace Enders’ style of production oozes throughout, similar to West’s debut.

Campbell’s vocals are on full display at their best. Although there’s no difference here to how he sings in The Wonder Years, Campbell flexes to express the story. “Just Sign the Papers” shows this perfectly, with an emotional and tortured build up. While the verses mourn his marriage, the choruses burst with shouts of why he loved her. The bridge though, is magical. The first time he whispers, “C-come on, just sign the papers / Don’t make me stay in the room / I don’t want this to be the way I remember you”, he softly croons. As they both sign the divorce papers, Campbell shouts with cracking vocals. The weight of Aaron’s anxiety is part of what makes these albums so real and special.

Routine Maintenance is an album that will give back whatever the listener puts in. New listeners may be lost or have trouble relating to the character. But anyone who has followed Aaron West over the last few years will be familiar with many of the characters and their expanded personalities. Dan Campbell’s live shows, where he takes on West’s persona, greatly amplify how the character builds his music career during the story. Routine Maintenance is fine on its own, but it’s so very much a different beast as a sequel. Wherever Campbell decides to take Aaron after this album, at least there is hope to be found.

4.5/5

by Kyle Schultz

kyle_catKyle Schultz is the Senior Editor at It’s All Dead and has worked as a gaming journalist at Structure Gaming. He lives in Chicago and heavily relates to Jasper from The Simpsons.

Review: Clear Eyes Fanzine – Season One, Episodes 1-6

I’ve never seen “Friday Night Lights”, movie or television series, but I constantly hear about how great of a series it is. The evidence is clearly mounting after the creation of Clear Eyes Fanzine, a side project from Dan Campbell of The Wonder Years and Ace Enders of The Early November. Season One, Episodes 1-6 is exactly what it sounds like. Both Ace and Dan provide three songs inspired by each episode. It’s a great concept that has created some of the most intense, provoking and emotionally wrenching songs either songwriter has ever written.

You can buy Season One, Episodes 1-6 on Bandcamp.

The main takeaway from SO, E1-6 is how much these songs sound like Campbell and Enders. The first three tracks, written by Campbell are basically tracks from Aaron West & The Roaring Twenties. The second half of the record is Enders prominently displaying his penchant for atmospheric minimalism that his I Can Make a Mess project has perfected. There aren’t any surprises, just damn good songs.

Campbell’s side of the record focuses on physical ailments and trauma. Whether that be physical exhaustion and determination from “On Tim Riggins as He Prepares for His Sophomore Year” (“I puked through my mask / And the smell never fucking leaves”), or brain trauma of CTE from “Coming Up for Air” (“I don’t talk about the headaches / I don’t talk about the nights when I forget where we are”), Campbell’s descriptions of the damage from playing football are brutal and unforgiving. It’s also some of his best work to date.

Enders, taking the back half, focuses much more on the emotional toll of the characters. His songs are ethereal and soft, feeding the energy of emotional drama. “Good Get Coach” begins with whispers and Enders harmonizing with himself before exploding with a chorus of, “Another rivalry begins, watching you watching him / I wish that I could let myself just let it all out”. Meanwhile, “The Fields” explores a back and forth conversation between characters. Enders sings, “I hate that they get applauded / It’s just a stupid game / In 15 years, that varsity jacket just won’t wear the same”, before the chorus kicks in with a differing viewpoint: “In the field, we fight for our tiny lives / It tore my father down, cuz nobody gets out”.

Clear Eyes Fanzine is fun, emotionally draining and comes from two songwriters who love “Friday Night Lights”. While each artist’s songs are incredible, the wasted opportunity for the two to share a song together is astounding. However, there’s always hope for the next few episodes. As a whole piece, the EP is an emotionally gripping exercise in writing.

4/5

by Kyle Schultz

kyle_catKyle Schultz is the Senior Editor at It’s All Dead and has worked as a gaming journalist at Structure Gaming. He lives in Chicago and HAS TOO MUCH TELEVISION!!! There is so much to watch, and not enough time to learn how to make wicker baskets.

 

Most Anticipated of 2019: #2 Aaron West Roars into 2019

We Don’t Have Each Other was one of the best albums of 2014, and one of the most unique albums of the last decade. With only a handful of songs released over the last four-and-a-half years to keep the story of Aaron West moving, a second album is long overdue. Fortunately, it’s looking to be coming sooner than later.

With a steady touring schedule and The Wonder Years in between album releases, it’s an ideal time for Aaron West to grab the spotlight. Also, the official Aaron West Twitter account claimed Dan Campbell to have been in the studio as recently as November 2018. With over four years since their last release, there is a plethora of story for Campbell to cover and room for the character of Aaron to grow.

If the band’s second album can even remotely come close to the intensity of the first album, it will already be a contender for album of the year.

by Kyle Schultz

kyle_catKyle Schultz is the Senior Editor at It’s All Dead and has worked as a gaming journalist at Structure Gaming. He lives in Chicago and could not be more excited for new music to tickle his ears in 2019.

Most Anticipated of 2017: #3 The Wonder Years Come Out Swinging…Again

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It’s impossible not to be excited for a new release from The Wonder Years. The band has written some truly magical music unlike anything else in the genre. When they announced on Twitter just before the new year that they were getting busy writing a record, they accidentally bumped off a few contenders for this list (sorry, Saves the Day and Hellogoodbye).

Around this time seven years ago, The Wonder Years seemed to appear out of nowhere and take over the punk scene by storm. Since then, they’ve not only released music regularly, but they’ve managed to up their own ante each time, growing as into one of the strongest and most respected bands out there.

I don’t need to know what direction they’re going this time, nor do I care. Each experiment they’ve touched has paid off, and each theme becomes deeper and more structured. I just can’t wait to see what else they’ve come up with.

Additionally, it’s about time for a new Aaron West and the Roaring Twenties release. Last year’s Bittersweet EP was a fantastic taste of what’s to come and gave some insight into what has happened in West’s life since we last saw him on We Don’t Have Each Other. It’s been three years since that album, and if West’s acoustic tour last year was anything to go by, there is a frantic fan base waiting for the next real chapter.

It’s only been a year and a half since the release of No Closer to Heaven, and they’re already gearing up for their next record. The dedication and groundwork The Wonder Years team show toward their craft is why they’re so beloved. That they have enough inspiration to work so tirelessly is enough reason to anticipate anything they’re preparing for.

by Kyle Schultz

kyle_catKyle Schultz is the Senior Editor at It’s All Dead and has worked as a gaming journalist at Structure Gaming. He lives in Chicago and yells at the rain on occasion. He also wants to play you in FIFA.

Aaron West and The Roaring Twenties: You Only Know Half the Story…

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Aaron West and The Roaring Twenties is a unique entity in the music scene. There are thousands of bands that tell stories on their records, but few that follow those stories through until we have something of substance. Aaron West, the side project of The Wonder Years frontman Dan ‘Soupy’ Campbell, is an emotional catastrophe. It tells a story about a broken man so earnestly that you would almost think that ‘Dan Campbell’ is the fake name of Aaron West, trying his best to hide amongst the living.

I knew that Aaron West was a passion project for Campbell, but until I saw his blistering set at the Subterranean in Chicago, I had no idea that listening to the record was only half of the story.

The Subterranean is a small venue by Chicago standards; hidden under the incredibly noisy Blue Line ‘L’ Train and tucked in the side of a building at a six-point intersection. It’s easy to miss if you’re not looking for it, and with so much traffic and congestion, the area can get dirty very quickly. The dark rooms are just big enough to fill up smaller shows and create a sense that the room is bigger and fuller than it really is. The entire venue feels like a cheap secret, and it’s the exact kind of place that you would imagine Aaron West, a man broken, alone and clawing his way home, to hide out and play music for money.

Before the show, I found Campbell hanging out near his merch table, posing for photos and signing anything tossed in front of him, a fact I know because I tossed the Aaron West Vinyl in front of him. As he disappeared, I looked down at the signature, taken aback at the fact that Campbell had signed it “A. West”. It didn’t bother me, but it was the first inkling to Campbell’s commitment to the character, and that this concert would be far different than I had expected it.

The show was a smooth collective of rowdy up-and-coming punk, followed by the soulful intimate songs of Allison Weiss. Cold Collective, a mashup of musicians from previously well-known bands such as Transit and Defeater, led the charge. Their songs were that of short, sweet punk rock with a twinge of Nirvana’s edge to the guitar with a hard, crisp bassline. It seemed clear that their debut album had been out for less than a month by the people singing along, but for a band taking the stage at 6:30 (I know, right?), the crowd that showed up to see them was large, even by Subterranean standards.

Taking the stage next was Can’t Swim, a newer melodic band signed to Pure Noise Records. Their songs caught my attention, as the guitars swayed between a hefty crunch to various tempo changes that reminded me of a mix of a young Early November and Set Your Goals. Vocalist Chris Loporto’s voice ached with an edge not unlike Polar Bear Club’s Jimmy Stadt. Each song garnered a louder round of applause until they made their exit, taking the noise with them up the dark spiral staircase behind the stage.

After an hour of loud, aggressive punk rock, it seemed odd that Allison Weiss should take the stage next. An indie artist more than a staple to the pop punk scene, Allison stood alone on an empty stage with one electric guitar plugged into an amp. With the drum kit removed entirely, the stage suddenly looked enormous. For anyone else, it could have been a disaster to suddenly change the vibe of the room and be left alone without even a backing band to cover you.

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Allison Weiss

Weiss has slipped through my attention for several years; not because I didn’t want to listen to her, but I always had something else to do. It led to me knowing her name and what she did, but not enough to know any of her songs. However, after the first song, I knew that she was indisputably the most talented musician of the night.

Weiss tore down the room with beautiful songwriting, pure vocals and quick strums of the guitar. As someone unfamiliar with her albums, I already know that seeing her live is the way she is meant to be appreciated. Her witty banter with the audience between songs as she tuned the guitar only added to her charm, even as she covered (I believe) “Call It Off” by Tegan and Sara. “New Love” included an energetic chorus shouted by the audience and ended with a song for the LGBT community, “The Same”. For one person standing alone on stage, her show became louder inch by inch and she crooned into the melting mic, gaining at least one new rabid fan.

Headlining the night was Aaron West. As he took the stage, I no longer saw Dan Campbell – he had committed to the character of Aaron completely. The usual energetic and fierce Campbell that I have seen several times at The Wonder Years shows was replaced by a nervous-talking creep. He was wearing a different shirt than I had seen him in earlier, and possibly wearing a very, very realistic fake beard (I say that because I met him earlier in the night and would swear to the Jeezy Creezy his beard wasn’t that long, but I’m half-a-creep as well, so take that with some healthy skepticism). This was Aaron West, alone on stage with an acoustic guitar and a few bright lights, telling his story.

Aaron played his debut LP, We Don’t Have Each Other front-to-back, in order, with the addition of the newly released Bittersweet EP finishing off the set. Under other circumstances, I would be disappointed with an artist just playing their songs like this, as concerts are usually a means to play with the setlist and find which tracks mesh well together. But Aaron West is a different entity. He is a broken man desperate to tell his story to anyone willing to listen, and there is no other order than this one.

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Aaron West

West’s songs are deeply depressing affairs – the opening song, “Our Apartment”, a song about West losing his mind as he sits alone after his wife leaves him, wondering where she went, was sung from the rafters by the crowd. Half way through, I looked to my left to see a woman holding her husband’s hand, wiping away a stream of tears, a process she would repeat several times throughout the night.

Between songs, a twitchy, Aaron would explain the storyline, where he was geographically and what was going through his head before each song. It gave even more insight into a story that is already extraordinarily detailed.

Before my personal favorite, “St. Joe Keeps Us Safe”, West explained, “When I was in kindergarten, I went to a Catholic school, and they told us that there were 10 commandments. It always blew my mind that there was a specific amount, not nine, or 269, but 10. And one of them was (and I’m going to fuck this up), ‘Thou shalt worship no false idols.’ But my mom kept these small statues of saints throughout our house. One facing the doorway to make sure we had enough food, stuff like that. And she buried a statue of St. Joe in the backyard to keep us safe. She was so devout, and it blew my mind that she was blatantly ignoring one of the 10 rules that we were supposed to strictly follow.”

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Aaron West

Aaron West has been an obsession of mine ever since the debut LP came out two years ago. The intense lyricism, the strong storyline, and the mix between aggressive singing and whispered crooning, as though Campbell found himself nearly in tears recording the damn thing, have always been something powerful for me. But seeing him live, I realized I was only seeing half the show. The other part was the dedicated performance piece, showing someone who has already found their bottom time and time again as they tried to get home. The nervous voice between songs and the twitchy movements may be that of a broken man, but he also showed the resolve of someone determined to fix themselves.

That said, the entire evening wasn’t all doom and gloom: a couple got on stage for the man to propose to a girl (she said yes, btw), to which West said, “”Have you even listened to the record, man?” However, following the proposal, instead of jumping straight back into Aaron’s dire straits, he performed a cover of Rilo Kiley’s “More Adventurous”.

Aaron West and The Roaring Twenties is an event that should be seen if it’s even remotely near you. Dan Campbell has proven himself not only as a musician, but as a writer and performance artist that would make Gerard Way jealous. Once again, though, Aaron West finds himself at a crossroads: with just one LP and one EP, he can tell his story as it was intended up through where he is now, and it is perfect. But as someone clamoring for the next part of the story, he may soon have to pick and choose which parts to tell. Even so, I can’t wait to hear how it ends.

by Kyle Schultz

kyle_catKyle Schultz is the Senior Editor at It’s All Dead and has worked as a gaming journalist at Structure Gaming. He lives in Chicago and is anxious for the next chapter of Aaron West, whenever that may be. Two years is a long wait 😦

 

Most Anticipated of 2015: #1 The Wonder Years

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UPDATE: A new album, No Closer to Heaven, is coming September 4!

If I need to explain why The Wonders Years make the top spot, you haven’t been paying attention. Although the band is roughly ten years old, they more or less burst onto the scene out of nowhere five years ago with the release of The Upsides and have done nothing but redefine what a pop punk band can do ever since.

In theory, The Wonder Years are as simple as can be; they turn the guitars loud and blast away a punk song with a catchy chorus. In practice, each consecutive release ups the ante and nearly dwarfs the album before it. The writing gets tighter and heavier, and the lyrics deeper and broken down to the essential parts of the human experience. Somehow, the concepts of each album relate to what has come before it, making their past discography more relevant as it helps build on each new song.

The Wonder Years are a story that is ever growing. Their last three albums have been retrospectively grouped as a trilogy about growing up. Each album has multiple call backs to the records before it, be it the characters, the locations or the melodies and lyrics. Where their new album goes is a difficult question to answer: since it sits outside of the trilogy we’ve known up ’till now it may be something completely new that we haven’t heard from the band before. But that’s nothing to be wary of; they’re constantly pushing themselves into new territory.

However, the spat of side projects from the various members (Aaron West and the Roaring Twenties, Why Bother?) over the last couple of years have let the band experiment in new territory that may or may not make its way to their core sound. Aaron West in particular was an exorcise in lyricism and storytelling that overshadows nearly everything else in its genre. From what I can tell, the band lives off of trying to top themselves with each release to make pop punk into a refined art form. Regardless, being TWY, all signs point to the album being loud, aggressive and catchy as all hell.

It’s going to be a big year. A new album is almost guaranteed, especially since The Greatest Generation was released almost two years ago and the band are already signed for another full run of this year’s Warped Tour. Maybe I give them too much credit, but the band has been at the forefront of the pop punk rebirth in the 2010’s without even flinching. Even if the album is a bomb, the band is an inspiration of hard work and ferocious integrity that anyone can and should look up to.

“It’s gonna be our year, boys”.

kyle_catKyle Schultz is the Senior Editor at It’s All Dead and has worked as a gaming journalist at Structure Gaming. He lives in Chicago and has seen Wonder Years almost every time they’ve been near the city for the last few years. He is an obsessive maniac who hasn’t been able to go a week without listening to one of their albums since The Upsides reinspired his love for music half a decade ago.

Top 10 Albums of 2014

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Look, we don’t like this any more than you do. These end-of-the-year lists are tedious, obnoxious, self-indulgent…

Aw, who are we kidding – we love it! Even though it’s technically impossible to subjectively rank this year’s best albums, we took our best stab at it. This year was chock full of fantastic releases, many of which won’t be mentioned here because there simply isn’t enough room (or time) to spotlight all of them.

Nevertheless, senior editor Kyle Schultz and I put our heads together and came up with 10 worthy suitors to be a part of our second-annual Top 10 Albums of the Year list. Take a gander, then let us know what your favorite records of the year were in the replies!

every_time_i_die10Every Time I Die – From Parts Unknown

From Keith Buckley’s repeated opening shrieks of, “Blow your fucking brains out!” on “The Great Secret” to his final desperate cries of, “All I want is for everyone to go to hell / It’s the last place I was seen before I lost myself” during the final crushing breakdown on “Idiot”, From Parts Unknown is unforgiving and unrelenting. Who knew a band 16 years into its career could craft what may be their most punishing and challenging album? With From Parts Unknown, Every Time I Die don’t just want to carve their name into the stone temple of metalcore lore, they want to burn the whole damn thing to the ground. – Kiel Hauck

fireworks9Fireworks – Oh, Common Life

Oh, Common Life is the type of album that reminds you of an intimate conversation with a close friend. Fireworks’ distinct pop punk style is softened to allow for more melody while vocalist David Mackinder sings a hypnotic tale of maturation that comes with the bigger life changes during your twenties and the isolation that the world can impose on you.  While it starts off very poppy, the album slowly branches and touches on styles of playing that Fireworks have never tackled before as the lyrics grow more somber and accepting of life (“The Hotbed of Life”). It’s hard to say that Oh, Common Life was what fans of the band were expecting, but it’s what they deserved. – Kyle Schultz

copeland8Copeland – Ixora

Parting was sweet sorrow for fans of indie rock act Copeland, who closed up shop in 2010. Their surprising return is more than a mere nostalgia trip, it’s a return to rare form with their new album Ixora. The band is more playful than ever, sending listeners into a dream-like trance throughout the album’s 10 tracks that include haunting electronics, prancing pianos, and even a saxophone solo. Frontman Aaron Marsh is still on top of his game, adding to his vocal repertoire during the silky-smooth chorus of “Like a Lie”. From front to back, Ixora finds Copeland better than ever – here’s hoping there’s more where this came from. – KH

new_found_glory7New Found Glory – Resurrection

Resurrection is the first New Found Glory album in several years to sound like a classic. The new four-piece rebuild their sound to be more succinct and brutal, mixing their signature pop with much heavier guitars and a thundering bass. Each member pushes their musicianship to their limits with lyricism and themes that are significantly angrier than past work. While the songs are undeniably catchy and easy to sing along to (“Selfless”), they can make the listener uncomfortable (“The Worst Person”), which may have been the point given how much the band went through in the last year. As a longtime listener of the band though, it’s easy to see how much passion and energy went into creating a record that would rise above the trials that hit them all at once. – KS

emarosa6Emarosa – Versus 

The loss of lead vocalist Jonny Craig appeared to spell disaster for Emarosa after the band released their stellar self-titled record in 2010. Not so fast. Emarosa roared back in 2014 with Bradley Walden at the mic, releasing the best album of the band’s career. Versus is rife with conflict, but it’s a struggle that produces something beautiful. When Walden flips the script just over a minute into opening track “People Like Me, We Just Don’t Play”, it feels like the sort of sonic shift that not only changes the course of the band’s trajectory, but one that slams the door shut on the past. – KH

weezer5Weezer – Everything Will Be Alright in the End

Say what you will about Weezer, there’s no denying that when they feel like it, they can put out a masterpiece of an album. The aptly titled Everything Will Be Alright In the End is the band’s answer to years of criticism regarding their constantly evolving sound. The new album sounds like a lovechild between Blue, Green, and Maladroit, blending the respective sounds of fuzzed guitars, catchy pop songs and thrashing rock. Rivers Cuomo tagged the album as a ‘classic’ in the press leading up to its release, and he couldn’t have been more correct. It’s the first release from the band that doesn’t necessarily break new ground for their sound, but it recaptures the magic that made the band an international mainstay. – KS

against_me4Against Me! – Transgender Dysphoria Blues

Gender confusion and transgender identity are topics that have been at the front of people’s minds this year, which makes it all the more appropriate that Transgender Dysphoria Blues arrived just a couple weeks into the New Year. Not only is it Against Me!’s best rock album, it’s one of the most daring in that it follows the story of a transgender prostitute that mimics Tom Gabel’s transformation into Laura Jane Grace. The album is a tight series of fist-pumping songs that are just as heartbreaking as they are catchy. In the opening title track, Grace sings, “Your tells are so obvious / Shoulders too broad for a girl / Helps you remember where you come from / You want them to notice the ragged ends of your summer dress / You want them to see you like they see any other girl / They just see a faggot”. The album is a powerful and ferociously angry statement about transgender issues in this country, as well as the struggle for people dealing with them. – KS

yellowcard3Yellowcard – Lift a Sail

Born from a tragic skiing accident that left vocalist/guitarist Ryan Key’s fiancé paralyzed from the waist down, Lift a Sail is a painful song of triumph. The band drops what was left of their pop punk roots and forges ahead with powerful, anthemic rock tracks and explosive piano ballads. Violinist Sean Mackin has never sounded better, adding texture and layers to the songs that don’t overpower, but instead compliment the entirety of the band’s new sound. Lift a Sail is encouraging as it is aching, as determined as it is vulnerable. Just when you thought it couldn’t be done, Yellowcard has topped themselves once again. – KH

aaron_west2Aaron West & The Roaring Twenties – We Don’t Have Each Other

Aaron West & The Roaring Twenties is more than just another side project. It’s one of the few concept albums to not only have a tangible story, but a character that garners genuine sympathy. The acoustic songs mix enough new elements to sound unique, and enough of The Wonder Years’ brash style to show the versatility of their music. Dan Campbell weaves a vibrantly real, dark and heartbreaking story that never feels cliché or forced. As Aaron cracks more and more with each song, Campbell’s vocals are pushed to their limit as he jumps from soft whispers, to screams, and then singing the words of a conversation, sounding as though he’s on the brink of tears. The range of themes and universal fears crammed into the album are absolutely awe-inspiring. It’s easily one of the most emotional pieces I’ve heard in years and is unlike most anything else out there. There is little doubt that he is on a level of lyricism his peers can only hope to achieve. – KS

architects1Architects – Lost Forever // Lost Together

How did a modern metalcore album land our number one spot for 2014? By rattling the well-worn conventions of the genre and spitting at the notion that the music is beyond redemption. Lost Forever // Lost Together is the best album Architects have crafted, surpassing even 2009’s mammoth of a record, Hollow Crown. Vocalist Sam Carter is full of fire from the outset, roaring across tracks of technical guitar riffs and skull-rattling breakdowns. The album is angry, sure, but you can hear the band searching for something more – something deeper. Lost Forever // Lost Together is a metalcore album that makes you think, challenges the scene’s apathy, and forges a new path for any heavy band that dare follow. When Carter bellows, “You said we’ll never make a difference / Maybe this battle is to fight indifference” on “Naysayer”, you feel the sentiment pouring from every fiber of his being. – KH

Honorable Mention:

PVRIS – White Noise

Merriment – Sway

I Can Make a Mess – Growing In

Anberlin – Lowborn

Taylor Swift – 1989

kiel_hauckKiel Hauck is the editor in chief at It’s All Dead. Over the past decade, he has been a contributor for multiple online and print publications and was most recently an editor at PopMatters. Kiel currently resides in Indianapolis, IN with his wife and their imaginary pet, Hand Dog. You can follow him on Twitter.

Review: Aaron West and The Roaring Twenties – We Don’t Have Each Other

aaron-west-and-the-roaring-twenties

Given how well respected Dan ‘Soupy’ Campbell and the rest of The Wonder Years are within the scene, it’s only natural that the front man’s debut solo album, under the pseudonym Aaron West and the Roaring Twenties, highlights what helped make the band so memorable in the first place – the incredibly real lyricism.

We Don’t Have Each Other is an intense lesson in storytelling, backed by a stripped down version of the punk song writing of TWY. While it’s by no means a groundbreaking solo album, it cements the fact that Campbell is the single most prolific writer in the scene. Taking on the persona of a fictional character, Aaron West, Campbell sings aloud a novel set to music that won’t drown out the story.

Aaron West relishes in the minimalist aspect of music; simple melodies are used as a basic tool to give traction to the lyrics. Though acoustically based, an assortment of other instruments help add some much needed layers to the songs to help them feel fleshed out. “Divorce and the American South”, includes a soft, short melody that strums nakedly for four and a half minutes, accompanied only by a muted trumpet in the last few seconds as Aaron mocks himself for how much he misses his wife, lamenting that she wouldn’t even attend his funeral in his own dreams.

The opening track, “Our Apartment” feels the most complete composition on the album, with the acoustic guitar accompanied by a banjo, drums, harmonica, violin and quite possibly a few other things across a bouncy southern-tinged melody. Light hints of country find their way into the album with the steel guitar (or whatever the hell that thing is) acting as a light rhythm. For anyone who has listened to I Can Make a Mess (especially the earlier albums), you can tell Ace Enders’ production by the sound of the electric guitar that accompanies some of the choruses, including “St. Joe Keeps Us Safe”.

The muted trumpet and electric guitar appear infrequently, and usually as background or bass to the acoustic melodies. But the minimal use only helps to amplify the chorus, such as the sax playing bass to the chorus of “You Ain’t No Saint”. Though they seem like they could be out of place, their minimal usage helps Aaron West feel intimate, personal and self-contained. Paired with the lyrics, the extra instrumentation almost manifests the dire feelings and situations that Aaron finds himself in.

The double edged sword for the stripped down acoustic theme is that songs can begin to feel stagnant after a while. On the other hand, anything more elaborate would distract from the lyrics.

We Don’t Have Each Other is an incredibly dense story. Campbell has written a masterpiece of tragedy about Aaron West, a twenty-something year old attempting to cope with a divorce from his wife Diane, brought about by the personal collapse he experienced due to the death of his dad and then the death of the couple’s (unborn?) baby. The whole saga follows Aaron through the darkest of his demons, as he reflects on what led to the divorce, how everything changed with his dad’s death and his new struggle with religion and faith.

Campbell has utterly outdone himself with his storytelling, making Aaron and the situations he finds himself in feel so utterly real it’s almost unbearable. From the outset, against the twang of a banjo of “Our Apartment”, Campbell sets up the disastrous divorce, singing, “I found enough of your hairpins to build you a monument, a statue of loneliness. Breathe it in, let it go. I caved a piece of the drywall in, replaying the argument”.

The struggle with religion comes up from time to time, from talking to God for the first time after the divorce in “Grapefruit” (“Hey, Holy Ghost, why’d you leave me? Where’d you go? I know we ain’t spoke in so long, but I’ve gotta know if I’m alone”) to feeling betrayed as he drives himself further into an alcoholic stupor in “Get Me Out of Here Alive” (“I’m starting to believe that there’s a God and he hates me. I’m starting to believe that my mom lied about grace and divinity”). Religion, along with the idea of driving South to Georgia, is part of the signature lyrical callback that we’ve grown to expect from Campbell through The Wonder Years’ entire discography.

What’s amazing is watching Aaron sink so damn deep, and then get violently pulled back to reality by the simplest things. While he questions feeling abandoned by God in “Grapefruit”, Aaron decides to start drinking. “Yeah, I’ll be the town drunk. I’ll be a burden to everyone”. However, in the darkest hours, he sees himself for what he is through the incredible lines of “The Thunderbird Inn”, where Campbell sings, “I drank my last paycheck dry, and outside a homeless man asks me for change and I, I look him straight in his eyes. He starts to apologize”, before screaming a strangled chorus of, “I didn’t know that I looked that pathetic”!

Aaron West and the Roaring Twenties is an exercise in craftsmanship. While the musical end of the album isn’t anything particularly original, it serves its purpose as a catchy catalyst. The real show here is the storyline. It’s profoundly dark, destructive and agonizingly uplifting. There may be other albums revolving around these themes, but nothing as straight forward or intense.

We Don’t Have Each Other is quite possibly the best written concept record out there, and cements Dan Campbell as the most prolific lyricist of his generation. I honestly cannot wait to hear the next chapter of Aaron West’s life (if there is one), and absolutely fear it at the same time, which is a testament as to how powerful his story really is.

4/5

by Kyle Schultz

kyle_catKyle Schultz is the Senior Editor at It’s All Dead and has worked as a gaming journalist at Structure Gaming. He lives in Chicago and yells at the rain on occasion. He also wants to play you in FIFA.