Another year of our favorites in Top Album Cover Artwork, and once again, we interview musicians and artists on the often-underappreciated work that goes into creating a product that not only tickles your ears, but speaks to your eyes and hearts. Album artwork, though often only viewed on tiny screens...

With wide-reaching arms and hungry ears, each of our writers has compiled his or her top albums of the year, for you to peruse our eclectic, atypical, and only occasionally overlapping tastes. You'd be well-served to check out every single record here.
Vivian Hua - dance, indie, pop, psychedelic, electronic Troy Micheau - metal, electronic, experimental, ambient Jason Simpson - pop, soul, electronic, ambient Ian King - electronic, ambient, instrumental, pop Peter Woodburn - ambient, metal, garage, indie Judy Nelson - dance, electronic, indie, pop, hip-hop Albums of the Year 2014
Orcas - Yearling Album Review
Yearling, the second album from Orcas -- the collaboration of Thomas Meluch, better known as Benoît Pioulard, and Rafael Anton Irissari, who also makes graceful ambient shoegaze under the name The Sight Below -- seems very intent on a time and a place. In this case, a summer in Germany, where most of these songs were written. To shift between subject and setting, Yearling switches between ambient drift and yearning ambient pop, with plaintive vocals courtesy of Pioulard. This can be seen most evidently in the one-two punch of album openers "Petrichor" and "Infinite Stillness", the former being a glowing nimbus of field recordings and swelling organs that sound like the backlit tree on the album cover, and "Infinite Stillness" being a piece of epic now wave splendour, with solid, stately drum machines and a plodding bassline and the first appearance of Pioulard's angelic vocals, that brings to mind the best era of The Cure. With a couple exceptions, this more song-oriented approach is a new feature of Orcas', whose self-titled debut was more focused on improvisation and ambiance. Most of Yearling was already written in the summer of 2012, and having a backbone to work off allows the music to be both loose and organic while still being tight, controlled, and ultimately, more human and more personal than any of the participants' solo careers.
As "Toothwheels" begins with a (relatively) hard dance beat and the video flickers with ghostly, strobing visuals, one instantly begins to think, "What the hell happened to the adorable múm that loved to frolick in nature and sing childish songs for adults?" It seems that they have shed a bit of their sunshine since their 2009 days of Sing Along to Songs You Don't Know, and their newest record, Smilewound, seems to be a darker and sparser record -- though certainly not lacking in the band's signature use of bizarre percussive sounds, bells, or string arrangements.

 

Drawing from the beauty of the Pacific Northwest and one of the area's most majestic creatures, Rafael Anton Irisarri of The Sight Below and Thomas Meluch of Benoît Pioulard have breathed life into a new project, Orcas. On their debut self-titled disc, the two have created nine tracks of ambiance-heavy songs featuring a number of opposing elements, including light and dark, acoustic and electronic, textured subtlety and straight-forward hook. In that spirit of balance, this bilateral feature places side-by-side interview responses and sample tracks from both artists, to dissect the strengths, weaknesses, and sonic tendencies both musicians contribute to making Orcas the rich collaboration that it is.

Benoît Pioulard

"Sault" from Lasted Where Irisarri's soundscapes lay a gentle foundation for the work of Orcas, Meluch's work as Benoît Pioulard provides more accessible and structural elements, complete with singer-songwriter pop melodies. "Sault," from Benoît Pioulard's album Lasted, has guitar and vocal tendencies that connect to the piano and guitar lines of "Arrow Drawn," which is streaming below.

Rafael Anton Irisarri

"A Great Northern Sigh" from The North Bend As The Sight Below, Rafael Anton Irisarri's compositions rebuild familiar emotions and spaces by way of minimal electronic soundscapes. According to Irisarri, "A Great Northern Sigh" has conceptual and thematic ties to the work of Orcas, as it also relates to the Pacific Northwest. "Almost like an audio postcard," he adds. "What can I say -- I'm deeply inspired by this region and wouldn't imagine composing our Orcas album anywhere else."

 

SPECTRAL HYPNOSIS A recurring series, featuring mesmerizing songs for one to lose sense of time and space, mind and body. Orcas - Orcas Two Pacific Northwest musicians -- electronic-minded singer-songwriter Benoit Pioulard and minimal composer Rafael Anton Irisarri (of The Sight Below) -- have gotten together for the aptly-named Orcas. Their upcoming self-titled...

In spring 2010, Iceland's Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted, billowing an ash cloud so large it disrupted air travel in Western Europe for nearly a month. News stations scrambled to cover the event, and all eyes turned to Iceland, both praising it and admonishing it for its native geographic wonders. But once the ash settled, so did the attention. Once again, Iceland found itself inhabiting its own isolated region of the world.

Iceland is a small country with a reputation built upon a foundation of misinformation. Few people have first-hand knowledge of the country, but many think they do. They spread the myth that Iceland is frozen over by glaciers year-round, that it's barely inhabitable during the winter months. They harp that quirky Icelanders have a widespread belief in the existence of fairies. No wonder a musician as eccentric as Björk would spawn from such a curious land! These hastily-draw conclusions do not paint the whole picture.
Iceland is certainly cold in winter months, but the famed landscape of eternal tundra is reflective of Greenland, not Iceland. Belief in mythological spirits certainly does exist, but Iceland is far from being an underdeveloped rural society of loons. The country's most famous export, Björk, is considered unique by any standards. Her musical and aesthetic choices are hardly reflective of the conventional norms of the country, and your average Icelander is far from outlandish.

Björk's recent accomplishments have taken the form of collaborative projects with musicians like Dirty Projectors and Antony And The Johnsons. Ostensibly, her solo career has been deferred, and to fill in the void, the world has shifted towards Iceland's other successful musical acts. Few and far between, those acts have wielded tremendous power, their sheer dearth providing them the opportunity to mold global perspectives on Icelandic's music scene.

Post-rock quintet Sigur Rós has, in the recent past, contributed to the rebranding of Iceland with a new visual and musical face -- a move that has unwittingly opened the scene up to another slew of stereotypes and associations.
"Icelanders are blessed with beautiful nature, lots of water, and space, and there's great energy in the country. But I think that more importantly, the most successful Icelandic musicians have been led by their curiosity and put a lot of time and effort into their art, and as result, created their own unique musical world." -- Ólöf Arnalds