When I sat down to write this list last year, I realized that the records that had been the core soundtrack to my 2013 were made by local artists. It was an amazing realization that the same people whom I run into when I walk down the street, see at parties, or whose shows I review for this newspaper—that it was their music that resonated with me more than any pop hit or underground critic's choice. It was superior, and it was coming out of my city. It happened again this year, and while there was plenty of fantastic music released elsewhere, you can read about that in countless other publications. But this is the only place where you'll read about the treasure in your own backyard.
(In order of preference)
Big Meridox, "Field Negro Rebellion" (Self-Released)
On September 11, 2001, System of a Down's "Toxicity" was number one on Billboard's albums chart, led by the eerily prescient single, "Chop Suey." Later that year, it was declared the best album of 2001 by Spin Magazine, with the tagline "sometimes we pick the music; sometimes the music picks us." Similarly, when Big Ox quietly released this EP last spring, it was just the strongest recording yet by Tucson's finest rapper. In the months to come, it became far more than just that. Though Meridox never explicitly talks about the police brutality and violence that came to define 2014, his aesthetic, laid out in the title track and throughout the record, was a political statement by nature of its—-and his—very existence, and in a year where almost every artist found themselves at a loss for words when their voices were needed most, "Field Negro Rebellion" stood as a monumental document of self-respect—a testament to the tragedy that this conversation is still necessary to have, but also to the guts of one man's refusal to keep quiet about it.
Lenguas Largas, "Come On In" (Recess)
How do you follow up a debut album that was as perfect as it was comprehensive? You don't fix what ain't broke but you open up the vision, which is exactly what Lenguas Largas did on "Come On In." Without sacrificing any of the utter strangeness that has always made them so enthralling, they embraced rock and pop music in a more straightforward way than ever before. One of the many secrets of this band is that as arty and uncompromising as their music is, it has a warmth and populist feel that prevents it from being insular, while its expanded sound-world, performed by rock 'n roll's answer to the Famous Flames and the JBs, opens the mind while the ass is being liberated.
Burning Palms, "Burning Palms" (Lolipop)
Burning Palms arrived in early 2013, pretty much fully formed. Fronted by Simone Stopford, the band's ceremonial percussion, guitar riffs that sounded like the echo of old blues 78s coming through a maze of catacombs along with Stopford and vocalist Julia DeConcini's truly disorienting and frightening harmonies, was breathtaking at best and arresting at the very least. They've only gotten better since then, and this second album (featuring many songs from their debut in superior, re-recorded versions) shows Burning Palms beginning to peak. The music is drenched in ancient mythical themes, but the songs go down as easy as pop and with the urgency of the best rock 'n roll.
La Cerca "Sunrise For Everyone" (Ft. Lowell)
Years in the making with more guest musicians than you can easily count, "Sunrise For Everyone" feels like a grand statement—its scope is as vast as the desert landscape that partially inspired it. "Sunrise For Everyone" shoots for the stars but reaches far beyond them; it's the culmination of four decades of inward-looking post-punk indie rock turned inside out into one big bang of majestic guitars and anthemic hymns. The pinnacle of the redefinition of desert rock.
Katterwaul, "Gimmie Fever!" (Self-Released)
Brittany Katter's blues-punk is so ragged and ferocious that it renders this album monolithic. The wail of her guitar and voice sounds older than time and the torture within the grooves—sometimes shrouded in a playful veneer—is as deep as the biblical-level catharsis that balances it. This is a record for the ages, flowing like some southern river that has seen untold baptisms.
Ezra Letra, "The Nobody" (Self-Released)
As a lyricist, Ezra Letra is virtually peerless. "The Nobody" strips away all of the cliched, overwrought existential angst that comes with delving into man's eternal search for meaning since the first time a rapper thought he could outdo Kafka. Letra doesn't try to do that here, nor does he have to. His own hyper-articulate narratives of the hardest questions one will face in life aren't brutal or depressing. He's said that his own feelings of invisibility and helplessness evolved into embracing the disconnect of being a "Nobody," freeing himself and the listener in the process.
North, "Metanoia" (Self-Released)
In four droning, hypnotizing, endless songs, North pretty much redefine heavy metal by keeping the steady, inevitable beat and wailing vocals but gutting the music of discernible guitar riffs and song structures. Instead, the trio take the rhythm section into places previously unexplored, with fantastical textures and idiosyncratic use of language, leaving "Metanoia" as 2014's most original rock record.
Jess Matsen, "Tall Told Tale" (Commercial Appeal)
Former Dream Sick singer Matsen once again turns the concept of the singer-songwriter on its head, crafting a day-glo and rustic masterpiece filled with indelible melodies and sentiments, sung in a cracked, distant and mournful voice that's corrosiveness suggests someone triple the age of the 24-year-old Matsen.
Zackey Force Funk, "Money Green Viper" (Hit + Run)
ZFF's most cohesively unhinged album yet, showcasing an unchecked id at its most glorious.
Best Dog Award, "Faith-Based Space Place" (Rubber Brother)
"Space Place" is a meticulously detailed tribute to the confusion and disaffection that fuels an innate need to get the fuck off the planet, and if that doesn't spell out 2014, I don't know what does.