Best of Denver

The 31 Best Colorado Albums of 2014

So active and vibrant are the musicians of Colorado that we could never truly compile a list of the year's best releases. There were simply too many, from big-label full-lengths by exports like Tennis to obscure demo tapes by nascent punk bands. Taken as a whole, the musical output of our state in 2014 suggests a scene that is as fertile, creative and ambitious as it has been in recent memory. You'll find some arguments for a few of our favorite new releases by Coloradans here, but this is just a starting point, with plenty of chances to find your own favorites every night in our myriad bars, clubs, theaters and even back yards.

See also: Ten of the Best Colorado Music Videos of 2014


Altas, Epoca de Bestias (Sailor Records) When engineer and producer Nick Sullivan worked with Altas to pare the band's sound down to the essentials, he helped turn already excellent material into a focused and impactful album. While certainly cinematic, these songs carry you through emotional experiences in a way that doesn't happen nearly enough with instrumental rock. Exultation, joy, peril, excitement, tranquility, uncertainty, affirmation, confidence, urgency: All of that and more is what you'll experience listening to this record. While simplifying its aesthetic slightly, Altas has actually stretched its songwriting wings on this debut full-length. -- Tom Murphy

Animal / object, Evolution By Natural Selection (Bangsnap Records) It would be difficult to listen to Animal / object's Evolution By Natural Selection and say exactly when it was composed or recorded, because pretty much every sound on it was employed both a hundred years ago and in modern music. Often, the result of that palate is old timey pop music. This, however, is spontaneous composition pieces in an ambient, abstract jazz style. Given the use of throat singing and unconventional percussion, this could also be seen as something like avant-world music. It's ritual music for modern primitivists. --Murphy

Ark Life, The Dream of You and Me (Greater Than Collective) It takes just a few idle guitar notes to set the tone for Ark Life's remarkable debut. Thoughtful and catchy, the album will feel like it has always been in your life from the first listen. Exploring subject matter ranging from wanderlust to that old Denver classic, Molly Brown, Ark Life combined Jesse Elliott's expert songwriting with Western-music traditions to create one of the most refined, celebratory albums of the year. This is a supergroup of Denver musicians and recent transplants, but they sound like they've been playing together all their lives. -- Isa Jones

Big J. Beats, Computer J. Fox (Self-released) Initially designed as a full-on alter-ego side project for DJ and producer Justin Alvarado, aka Big J. Beats, Computer J. Fox eventually morphed from a musical persona into a single album. The result is a throwback of epic proportions, but with a modern twist: Clips from Revenge of the Nerds and early-'80s TV-talk-show techspeak are spliced into the tracks, running between Beats's cushy synthesized melodies. Most of the dreamy soundscapes come in short bursts of less than three minutes, creating an album of tripped-out vintage vignettes punctuated by breakbeats and computer-generated hand claps. -- Bree Davies

Blake Brown & The American Dust Choir, Three (Self-released) While still without a full length album to his name, Blake Brown continues to release high quality and well-crafted EPs. His latest, recorded at Haptown Studio in Nashville, by Roger Moutenot (Yo La Tengo, Sleater Kinney) shows the songwriter stretching his musical roots and song-writing range. Starting with harmonica-driven "Get Out" and ending with the blissed-out "Surrender (La Di Da)," Brown builds solid musical structures while letting his excellent band, The American Dust Choir, complete the build. With the right musicians, connections and songwriting ability, Brown's musical foundation is intact and will continue to strengthen with each song he adds to its base. -- Andy Thomas

Bud Bronson & the Good Timers, Even Better Times (Self-released) Though born and raised in New Jersey, Brian Beer has embraced the Mile High City. On this new full-length from his band, Bud Bronson & the Good Timers, Beer name-checks several Denver landmarks, traverses late-night house shows and jaunts up Larimer while managing to avoid the pull of convention. His storytelling ability and cadence tips a cap to the Hold Steady's Craig Finn but also contains touches of Paul Westerberg, Patterson Hood and Jack Kerouac. Musically, the load is shouldered by guitarist Luke Gottlieb, whose playing adds sparks and flashes to a story already exploding with bright city lights. -- Thomas Civilized, Dust and Blood EP (Youth Attack Records) Our city has never been known for its contributions to hardcore punk, but to every rule there is an exception. In a town where punk has typically been resigned to cheeky mediocrity, Civilized's debut hits with the same leveling force as a hundred-year flood, sweeping in and exposing the garbage and crap of the land for what it really is. With Bust and Blood, Colorado hardcore has a new measuring stick for candor and musical excellence. It should be noted that physical copies of this record are long gone, but interested locals can still see the band on an almost monthly basis, playing run-down warehouses to nearly nobody. It's Denver's finest fruit, rotting on a vine of complacency. -- Mark Masters

Chase Ambler, No One Cares (Self-released) If the songs on Chase Ambler's No One Cares had been released by Lookout Records twenty years ago, the band would have been canonized as pop-punk saviors. Its members would all probably be playing golf with Fat Mike right now in some South Pacific resort where punk rawk's elite gather in their own micro-Bilderberg meeting to discuss the further cheapening of an already dying subculture. Fortunately for us, this tape was presciently titled, and our Littletonian heroes can easily be seen at any given house party by any given chach with five bucks to blow. The system works! -- Masters

Chella & the Charm, Chella & the Charm (Self-released) If the campfire song aesthetic informs the songwriting on Chella & the Charm's debut, those campfires were the kind where people could be free and real with each other, where they could wax unpretentiously poetic about dreams, aspirations and fears. And none of the songs on this album are just dark or just about pain, triumph or overcoming hardship. They're about life and about the complex emotions and experiences that come with being an adult. The songs sparkle with a warmth and buoyant energy, and even the album's darkest moments aren't weighed down by despair. It's thought provoking but fun, philosophical yet accessible. --Murphy

City Hunter, City Hunter (Blackout Rage Records) If someone would've told you that, in 2014, people would be paying $10 for a two and a half minute long slasher-film-themed demo cassette, you'd've done well to sock him right in his lying mouth. But this is the year that the debut solo recording of Commerce City hardcore mastermind Jimmy Trejo was released to the sweaty palms of PayPal account-wielding white guys the world over. Now, it takes a certain amount of moxie to base an entire recording project (and, occasionally, a live band) around '70s and '80s slasher films, but the City Hunter demo goes beyond peonage to establish its own horrifying mythology and drives it home with due care in a nice puffy VHS-type cassette case that woulda looked real sweet next to you copy of C.H.U.D. had you not thrown it away during your last move. -- Masters

Culprit, Culprit (Obsolete Future) A hybrid of IDM and deep house, Culprit's new tape feels like discovering a secret zone of some classic Super Nintendo game, where the best graphics and music exist. It is reminiscent of old Aphex Twin and Future Sound of London in how alien and textured that music could be, and it's seemingly disconnected from a contemporary cultural context. While not merely eight-bit composition, it does make the most economical and creative use of minimal elements. -- Murphy

Dragondeer, Don't That Feel Good (Self-released) The new EP from Dragondeer doesn't sound like a debut; in fact, it includes a swampy, psychedelic cover of that first song Eric Halborg ever learned to play, "Deep Elem Blues." The album as a whole bears the mark of Halborg's years of passion for grooves and the songwriting finesse he learned with the Swayback. -- Jon Solomon

FL, Young Amsterdam (Self-released) Young Amsterdam attempts to build that bridge between pot culture and Denver culture, but FL knows it takes more than a concept to accomplish something like that. The music has to be compelling on its own. Like much of FL's music, Young Amsterdam has melancholy undertones. It is meticulously crafted, with high-quality production, stinging punchlines and calm bravado.

And although it's his second solo release, his work with the Foodchain -- a group that's been featured on major hip-hop blogs, opened for a slew of national headliners and recorded with the likes of Raekwon -- is still much better known. On Young Amsterdam, he employs a wide range of sounds and delivers some of his most impressive lyrics. The album is more than capable of keeping the attention of fans who started out just caring about the connection to pot. -- Antonio Valenzuela Homebody, Homebody EP (Self-released) Not long after their much-lauded project School Knights dissolved last year, Michael Stein and Morris Kolontyrsky took up with drummer Carson Pelo as Homebody, a poppy, smart, double-guitar-driven outfit. With layered vocals that sound pleasantly dissonant, songs like "Embroidery" and "Keeping Home" flow deliberately away from typical garage-rock tendencies and into more thoughtful and thorough territory. The EP is short but packed with detailed guitar work and lots of cymbals. Luckily, there's more to come from Homebody in 2015, as the trio just finished recording its first full-length. -- Davies

Itchy-O, Burn the Navigator (Alternative Tentacles) It's difficult to imagine how anyone could capture the music of the live Itchy-O experience with any clarity and coherence, but local recording legend Bob Ferbrache has outdone himself on Burn the Navigator. Ferbrache distilled the essence of the thirty-plus-member band for a compelling listening experience that's equal to that of a live performance. This record is also proof of Itchy-O's worth as an experimental band and not just a performance spectacle. The disturbingly gritty "The Merkabah" is especially well rendered in all its terrifying and visceral glory. -- Murphy

Low Tax, Demo II (Crippled Sound Records) The men and woman of Low Tax exist in a very different Denver from the ever-sunny, microbrewing snowboard party that this town likes to see itself as. Their Denver is one of grimy warehouses, degrading manual labor, overstuffed and run-down communal living conditions and petty criminality. The loathing and malaise of our city's forgotten class are painfully evident in Demo II; the music is ugly, harsh, mean and violent. It is completely unaware of and uninterested in its own place in this world, and thus the most honest thing you're likely to hear this year. -- Masters

M. Sage, A Singular Continent (Patient Sounds) These recordings have what some might consider imperfections all across them. The effect is similar to the types of textures employed in the films of Stan Brakhage. The melodic vistas and swelling, drifting atmospheres have an inherent beauty, and the layers of audio dust mixed convey a sense of extended nostalgia. It's like a musical equivalent of the Colorado landscape, urban and rural, and how it has changed in the last decade and a half. -- Murphy

Miss America By Wheary, All Is Not Lost (Self-released) All Is Not Lost, the debut EP from Miss America By Wheary, is drenched in mystery. At times subtle, at others all-consuming, this album is the sounds of the complex, contradictory and inexplicable feelings of the heart. It's delicate and detailed, and every listen provides more insight. When we heard that Joe Pope and Nathaniel Rateliff we're working on something, we knew it was going to be impressive, but we aren't sure we were expecting this. It's quiet and personal, the kind of music that plays while hushed conversations happen over whiskey. While people sit up alone at night contemplating little, life changing decisions. Really, though, it's just gorgeous to listen to. -- Jones

Montoneros, If You Think You're in the Wrong Place, You're Probably Here (Self-released) Montoneros debut album, If You Think You're in the Wrong Place, You're Probably Here, is a wild ride through ten tracks of space-rock-tinged indie pop with an emo bent. The record showcases the dual personalities of frontman Gaston Leone, who was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, but raised in Denver. The spanish lyrics of "Como Yo" seem to capture Leone's longing for people who, roughly translated, feel just like him. Meanwhile, the ethereal groove and riffed-out bridge of that track convey a strange sense of wanderlust, which likely comes from having two very different homes. On a more universal level, this album is a must-listen for any confused twenty-something living in this uncertain world. -- Gassman

Pizza Time, U Wanna Pizza Me? (Burger Records) Pizza Time is a band made up of a rotating cast, but the project's heart, soul and songwriting lie with David Castillo. Throughout U Wanna Pizza Me?, Castillo's partying-pizza-dude persona deals with everything from heartache ("Lagrimas (Otra Vez)" and "Sleep Less") to being afflicted with "Creepy Crawlies." Castillo's jangly garage-pop style is defined by his bilingual lyrics, as songs in both English and Spanish blend seamlessly to create music worthy of popping into the tape deck and bumping while cruising by your high-school ex-girlfriend's house just one more time. -- Davies Ned Garthe Explosion, Teenage Acid Party (Self-released) This album's title track takes you on a wild trip that starts with innocently dropping LCD at a party and then melts down into a total freak out. Other issues explored here include the death of the Ramones and that awkward moment when you light a house on fire with a group of people but can't remember their names after the fact. Part concept album and part garage-rock perfection, The Ned Garthe Explosion possess the musicianship and craft to take you down any part of the rabbit hole you want to explore - just don't expect them to help you back out of it. -- Thomas

Potato Pirates, Raised Better Than This (Self-released) The Denver music scene, by and large, is inclusive and inviting. On their latest release, the Potato Pirates set out to make it clear that they are neither of those things. Songs like "I Will Defend" and "Outta My City" warn that "hipster shit" is not welcome in their world. While these lyrics are mostly tongue-in-cheek, the band remains true to its punk-rock pedigree. Like Operation Ivy before them, the Pirates take the best parts of ska, street punk and pop punk to create a diverse and well-crafted record that you can't help but want to get closer to, even when the band is telling you to stay away. -- Thomas

Sara Century, Curiosity (Tinyamp Records) Like every Sara Century album, this one is unclassifiable. Describing it as lo-fi does capture how these songs are supposed to sound like diary-entry short stories, discovered posthumously as literary and musical curiosities. The way that Kenneth Anger films tap into a kind of subconscious understanding of urban and personal mythology, these songs have a fog-enshrouded sensibility, a dreamlike haze that imbues what might be everyday experiences an otherworldly quality. It's part Goth Julie Ruin, part Maya Deren, bizarre, unique and surprisingly accessible. -- Murphy

Safe Boating Is No Accident, Bonus Features (Self-released) The new LP from Leighton Peterson and Neil McCormack is a fun time all around. It's actually hard to understand why the song "Lover Undercover" isn't playing constantly on every radio station, it's that catchy. The rest of the tracks are just as upbeat, all bursting with energy and emotion. There are so many bands out there trying to do the weirdest or strangest thing they can, so something as simple as Bonus Features comes off as refreshing and familiar, in the best way possible. It took the group two years of releases for this full-length, and we hope it doesn't take another two years to hear from them again. -- Jones

Snake Rattle Rattle Snake, Totem (Self-released) There are no clear choruses or catchy hooks. Instead, this is a record with a pulse. It fluctuates, recedes and then lunges forward suddenly. Hayley's vocals are more than compelling enough to carry the listener through, but this is miles away from the band's debut, which sent danceable sensibilities and catchy melodies through a macabre filter ... Totem is still capable of making people move, but this time it's almost ritualistic, with Hayley singing incantations, repeating the same phrases as beats swell and fade behind her. "I root for the antelope, I root for the lion," she whispers over and over in "Versus," while drums and bass slowly build. While the album is very much a group effort, the result comes across as personal and private, the work of a fanged, five-headed beast. -- Jones

Sole and Pain 1, Death Drive (Self-released) Ever since Tim Holland (aka Sole) -- rapper and co-founder of the venerable hip-hop label Anticon -- hit the ground in the Mile High City a few years ago, he hasn't stopped. This year's Death Drive was a collaboration with Madison, Wisconsin, DJ and producer Pain 1. It's an exercise in Sole's usual confrontational style: From commenting on global politics and the current state of hip-hop to name-checking Helen Keller and Osama Bin Laden in the same breath, the MC leaves no topic untouched, making for one of the more thought-provoking and mobilizing records of the year. -- Davies

Swing Hero, You've Never Been So Alone (Self-released) Throughout the years, Marshall Gallagher has proven to be one of the most talented and diverse guitar players Denver has to offer. While currently residing in Los Angeles, Gallagher's past project have ranged from the heavy and technical (Solar Bear) to the accessible and fun. (3oh3!)

On this most recent project, Gallagher takes his years of schooling and combines them into a powerful and transcendent nod to '90s acts like Smashing Pumpkins and HUM. Here, Gallagher also unveils his strength as a vocalist and song-writer, leaving the listener hoping that Swing Hero is the project that Gallagher finally makes stick. -- Thomas

Tommy Metz, Fruitions (Self-released) He may be better known for his darker electronic compositions put out under the moniker Iuengliss, but Fort Collins native Tommy Metz struck out into the world of hyper-positivity this year with Fruitions. The record is awash in the intricate, synthesized beats he's known for, but just below the glittery surface lie delicate piano pieces and deeply personal lyrics delivered through Metz's pop-perfect voice. "Triumph" and "A Comfortable Feeling" read like self help journeys, and the musician's expert sonic architecture offer them up less as corny pop psychology and more like fuck yeah empowerment ballads. -- Davies

Thug Entrancer, Death After Life (Self-released) Previously playing in acts like BDRMPPL, Thundercade and Hideous Men (to name a few) and now as Thug Entrancer, Ryan McRyhew has been a staple of Denver's DIY scene for well over a decade. As Thug Entrancer, McRyhew blends the minimalist modular synthetics he's mastered with his deep love for Chicago juke and Footwork. Each song is drawn out, beats given plenty of oxygen to build, while melodic movements take place even more subtly just underneath. Thug Entrancer's Death After Life is like the soundtrack to dystopian future where DJ Nate and Front 242's styles collide. -- Davies

Wild High, Sdreams (Self-released) In December, Denver's psych-rock quartet, Wild High, released its long awaited debut album, Sdreams, which was recorded throughout Summer 2014 with Alex Anderson of Rose Quartz. Because of Anderson's knack for live recording and Wild High's ability to pen great tunes, each of the ten tracks sound fluid, mature and surprisingly consistent. "Symmetry," for instance, helps the album bloom into the near-funky rock territory of "God in a Woman," then comes the effortless, spaced-out transition between "Tidal" and "Dip." After that is "Boomerang," an infectious, mid-album groover that pushes Sdreams forward to its most stand-out cut, "Ophelia." -- Gassman

Windemeries, Anthem of the Recession Generation (Self-released) Chris Grassello has been inching towards making this record his whole career. Through various projects, he always showed promise, but was never "quite there" - until now. Lyrically, vocally and musically, Grassello sounds seasoned and schooled shouting out the hurt and rejection that everyday life can cause. While heavily steeped in Fat Wreck Chords style d-beat punk, "Recession..." shows a maturity and balance that can only be obtained by, as Grassello did, trying it over and over again. Theatrical, compelling and fun, this album is a benchmark as well as an exciting jumping off point for a young and talented band. -- Thomas

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