1. Yeezus – Kanye West
A challenging album that stands in sharp contrast to some of West’s past releases thanks to its raw minimalism, Yeezus is generally devoid of any radio-friendly tracks and instead opts for more brooding, almost industrial songs. From the opening grind of “On Sight” to the tortured screams on “I Am a God”, there are plenty of abrasive sounds that work well with the often autotuned vocals to create an intense but captivating work. It’s refreshing to hear a major artist boldly pursue a vision that won’t necessarily appeal to a broad swath of listeners—what’s even better is when the vision works as well as it does in Yeezus.
– Samuel Wolter
2. Modern Vampires of the City – Vampire Weekend
In its third studio album, Vampire Weekend explores a new musical style while beginning to grapple with heavier themes such as faith and mortality. The combination of lyrics describing moody, freezing beaches in “Hannah Hunt” to a torching of a Saab in “Diane Young” with the album’s ebbs and flows unveil the band’s darkest realization: growing up also means growing old. In spite of these fears, Vampire Weekend delivers a beautiful album, intertwining musical intricacies with enigmatic lyrics in a way that is at once honest, confusing, and captivating.
3. Pure Heroine – Lorde
I know. We’ve all heard “Royals” about 50 million times now and are ready to declare a fatwa on precocious pop stars that come from distant lands whose people are nicknamed after fruit. Pure Heroine, though, really shouldn’t be treated as a passing pop sensation. The album may be dominated by minimalist, synth-filled soundscapes with little variation, but it’s worth examining beneath the surface. Here is a teenager defying pop conventions to explore feelings of isolation and middle-class suburbia. In an age when columns about anxious millennials are a journalistic genre in themselves, it’s a refreshing change to hear from an actual youth growing up in the Internet era. Calling Lorde the voice of her generation might be a bit extreme, but she fastens a poetic lens to an age of feeling alone in a crowd, building a world around a quiet nighttime street.
4. Acid Rap – Chance the Rapper
Following the steps of Biggie, Kanye, and Kendrick, Chance The Rapper is the latest wunderkind to emerge from Rap’s procession of young talent and spit new energy into the seemingly stagnating genre. The 20-year-old’s first mixtape, 10 Day, gave a glimpse of his impressive lyricism, but it wasn’t until his chart-topping 2013 release, Acid Rap, that Chance secured a spot among his genre-defining predecessors. He wraps an LP about injustice and death in intricate playful lyrics, which rightfully pay homage to rap’s greats, from Twista to Tupac. A story of the pain and solemnity of the emcee’s past delivered in tabs of Chance’s youthful lyrical flare, Acid Rap is a real trip.
5. Random Access Memories – Daft Punk
Very few artists have changed the world. Daft Punk, the iconic French electronic outfit, is among the pantheon of musicians who are legitimate claimants to that status. Random Access Memories, Daft Punk’s first studio production in eight years, doesn’t quite live it up the impossibly high bar they themselves have set, but it is infectiously good. It updates the sounds of the ‘70s and ‘80s for our time, and lashes out at the deleterious trend of releasing EPs or singles instead of albums. But perhaps the best testament to its refined power is the fact that you’ve played “Get Lucky” at least 20 times despite it being one of the stupidest songs you’ve ever heard.
6. Long Live A$AP – A$AP Rocky
In his breakout album, Long.Live.A$AP, A$AP Rocky has marked his territory very broadly. The Harlem, N.Y. native shows no reservation in his influences and collaboration. This album pairs trap-heavy hip-hop beats with melodic vocal hooks, bouncing lyrics with deep distorted choruses, and even ventures to team-up with Skrillex on the successful hybrid track, “Wild For The Night.” The one common denominator on this album is A$AP’s demonstrated mastery of the rhythm and flow of his rapping, an element that ties all his other diverse influences into a cohesive-sounding album. A$AP Rocky’s album, like his hometown, is an energetic fusion of a multitude of stories and sounds.
7. The 20/20 Experience – Justin Timberlake
On his first LP since some of us were in middle school, Timberlake continues to shed his pop-y, N’SYNC musical identity. In The 20/20 Experience, Timberlake evokes Marvin Gaye and Motown and blends them with Timbaland’s production to make his electronic-soul epics. With no song on the album under five minutes, JT puts a lot into the disc. Sometimes he overextends, but his artistic vision is something to be admired. From the old-school class of “Suit & Tie” to the stellar, neo-soul epic “Spaceship Coupe,” JT proves that he still knows how to make some great songs.
8. Reflektor – Arcade Fire
Arcade Fire has produced an LP worthy of its Grammy-winning title. With its fusion of Saturday Night Fever rhythms and gut-deflating guitar riffs, Reflektor is a creative departure from the band’s traditional and iconic alternative sound. Influenced by the ‘80’s pop themes of LCD Soundsystem, this seventy-five minute double album will pleasantly surprise listeners with songs like “We Exist” and “Here Comes the Night,” two of the many tracks that incorporate elements of Caribbean and disco music. Reflektor is an LP that is truly reflective of Arcade Fire’s more developed and nuanced sound, and it’s definitely worth a listen.
9. Talon of the Hawk – Front Bottoms
It’s hard to sound hopelessly sad and infectiously fun at the same time, but The Front Bottoms balance the two perfectly in their sophomore album Talon of the Hawk. Combining up-tempo, crashing-dance rhythms with youthful, self-aware lyrics, The Front Bottoms have crossed over genres in their blend between folk and punk. Whether it’s telling a dumb story about getting too high and falling asleep in a car in “Skeleton” or breaking listeners’ hearts with the tragic outro on “Twin Size Mattress,” Talon of the Hawk never fails to impress with its wide range of emotions and awesome jams.
10. Save Rock and Roll – Fall Out Boy
After five years on hiatus, Fall Out Boy has made its declarative return. If fans were looking for a punkier “Thnks fr the Mmrs” sound in Save Rock and Roll though, they will be confused. The album instead experiments with new electro-pop swings, such as the disco “Miss Missing You” and dance-rock of the aptly-named “Where Did the Party Go,” and brings on some unexpected guests like rapper Big Sean on “The Mighty Fall” and the crooning Elton John on the closing rock-ballad “Save Rock and Roll.” It’s odd, but it’s a good odd. Fall Out Boy doesn’t really save rock and roll (with their least rock album yet), but it has definitely saved their place at the angsty pop table.
1. The Way, Way Back
The Way, Way Back is more than a pleasant surprise: It’s a clever and poignant film about growing up, for people in all stages of life. It strays from the syrupy “coming-of-age” movies that are often so trite the audience leaves vomiting with boredom. There’s something in this movie for everyone: awkward family gatherings, class warfare, budding adolescent longing. This film, directed and written by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (known for their work on Community and as the Oscar-winning writers of The Descendants) explores both happiness and pain, capturing awkward adolescence with a wry compassion that’s rare in film, especially today.
2. The Spectacular Now
Try to get past the cheesy title if you can. The story of a high school senior struggling with the idea of having to grow up as he deals with alcoholism and an estranged father, The Spectacular Now is at once recognizably universal and deeply personal. The teenage years are a notoriously difficult period, both to go through and portray on screen, and TSN handles them with a deftness that recalls the John Hughes golden era of teen flicks. The romance at its heart is refreshingly believable, defined by a charming awkwardness and sensitivity that kept me captive even through a somewhat lazily structured last quarter. Filled with all the startling intensity of youth, it’s not so much a spectacle as a quiet revelation, parceled out in moments of incredible potency.
3. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Possibly the year’s most anticipated sequel, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire garnered a raucous ovation as the screen faded to black after it’s midnight premiere at our local AMC Cinema. And boy, was that applause deserved. Our heroes, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) struggle to survive their second time in the arena. But this time, the devious President Snow (Donald Sutherland) is joined by a new game maker, Plutarch Heavensbee (Phillip Seymor Hoffman), and the duo will stop at nothing to see Katniss dead. Dazzling cinematography, refined acting, and a beautiful score take what could have been another mediocre action movie and instead created a terrifyingly intense exploration of the dystopian world of Panem.
4. 12 Years a Slave
In 12 Years a Slave, Steve McQueen manages to distinguish his movie from all the other overdone slavery films by focusing on the brutality of the owners rather than the resilience of the slaves. Although the film is centered on Solomon Northup’s real-life narrative, the cruelty he experiences is just an example of the myriad of slaves that went through similar experiences in the United States. The images of beating, verbal abuse, and suffocation are held on the screen long beyond what is comfortable—but isn’t that the point? The film confronts the audience with the most unsettling realities of Southern plantations. McQueen captivates viewers to cling to the words of a story everyone ought to understand.
5. Django Unchained
Just when we thought we’d had enough of Quentin Tarantino’s blood-soaked genre-movie escapades, Django came along and artfully splattered the spaghetti Western with anger, fear and extravagance. Set in Texas in 1858, Django Unchained is the story of a freed slave (Jamie Foxx), who travels across the country with a German bounty hunter in search of his wife. Like Inglorious Basterds before it, this film is an exploration of atrocity through the director’s time-tested tools of intricate character development, dark humor, and cathartic violence. As always, Tarantino’s meticulous attention to detail elevates this dark film to a visually stunning chef-oeuvre, leaving no boutonnière unbloodied.
6. Zero Dark Thirty
Regardless of whether or not the CIA influenced writer Mark Boal and director Katherine Bigelow in the making of Zero Dark Thirty, the movie was good, and damningly so. Of the many strengths of the movie, most notable was Bigelow’s treatment of torture. Though extremely controversial, Bigelow’s torture scenes were factually and historically accurate, as the CIA did use techniques like waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and confining the detainees in extremely small boxes in order to get them to talk. Even more, the scenes of the movie were intensely moving, urging audiences to rethink their idealized vision of America, especially regarding its values.
7. The World’s End
What appears to be a film about confronting the realities of adulthood and putting the glory days of youth in the past takes on a new life with an apocalyptic plot twist no one saw coming. The World’s End features director Edgar Wright’s trademark parody of a humdrum English town and mixes American humor with classic British snark. The film begins with five childhood friends reuniting to bury the past and complete The Golden Mile, a pub crawl they had attempted 20 years prior. As these men make their way toward The World’s End, the final pub on the list, they find that the past comes back to haunt them in the most unexpected way possible.
8. This is the End
This Is the End brings authenticity to the stoner bro comedy genre. Marketed as a spoof on the tired apocalyptic-horror flick, the movie also portrays the frustrations between childhood best friends Seth Rogen and Jay Baruchel, who play themselves. Seth drags Jay to a party at James Franco’s house, when the apocalypse strikes. After they realize they have no provisions except for enough drugs to intoxicate hundreds of Hollywood stars, those remaining at James Franco’s house fight over both resources and each other’s favor. As the situation grows dire, the comedy becomes less scripted and more self-aware, with each character parodying themselves. Amid all the backstabbing and death, Seth and Jay reconcile before they’re both raptured up to Heaven, where—in the most convincing display of God’s grace—the Backstreet Boys have reunited.
Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity is a simple, neverending, terrifying rollercoaster ride. “Life in space is impossible.” A Marvin the Martian figure that floats within the space shuttle in the film captures our ideal to defy this cold, hard fact by placing as many International Space Stations and Tiangongs as we can place into orbit. Then everything that can go wrong goes wrong. As all the machines explode into a billion lethal pieces, Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Mike Kowalsky (George Clooney) find out what being human really means: We are but merely tiny, fragile lives on a pale, blue dot in the vast cosmos of silence.
10. Star Trek: Into Darkness
J.J. Abrams delivers a satisfying sequel to 2009’s fun but flawed Star Trek reboot. James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) must learn to develop as a leader and as captain to the Enterprise when faced against both an unpredictable galactic terrorist (Benedict Cumberbatch) and numerous conspiracies. Filled with fun action, great performances, and amazing effects, Into Darkness is a delight for the eyes of the viewer and a fantastic summer blockbuster, although it is marred somewhat by numerous plotholes, inconsistencies, and far too many references to the old Star Trek films, making it feel at times more like an overblown remake than a reimagining of the classic series.
-John Connor Buckley