Hi everybody! Welcome to my Best Albums of 2014 list! Before we get started, I’d like to dedicate this years list to an artist whose band didn’t make the list, Ms. Laura Jane Grace. Laura Jane Grace is the leader of the long established pop-punk band, Against Me! I’ve never really been a fan of her band but goddamn, did she inspire me this year. A few years ago, the lead singer/songwriter for Against Me! came out to her band and audience as transgender. She informed us that henceforth, she would be living her life as Laura Jane Grace. This year, she released Against Me!’s best album in years, Transgender Dysphoria Blues. It is a brave and fierce record by a brave and fierce artist and even though pop-punk sucks, this artist and her new record totally deserve respect and admiration. It doesn’t hurt that the title track totally fucking rocks as well. Here’s to you, Laura Jane Grace. Thanks for reading, everybody. I hope you enjoy my list.
20. How to Dress Well – What Is This Heart?
I’m pretty much over it now but during the summer, this indie R&B album was my jam. The album’s centerpiece, Words I Don’t Remember, is quite stunning. Having followed this guy’s development, it’s quite nice to witness him transition from sounding unsure of himself and hiding behind a wall of LoFi noise to becoming a fully realized confident and cleanly produced experimental R&B artist.
19. Amen Dunes – Love
Speaking of LoFi, this ramshackle folk album was my sleeper hit of 2014. This record evokes artists such as Will Oldham, Wooden Wand, Lay Lady Lay-era Bob Dylan, Syd Barrett, even a little Devendra Banhart and Fleet Foxes while also sounding entirely new and unique. Particularly noteworthy tracks include Lilac in Hand, and I Know Myself but my favorite is by far Lonely Richard, a simple but driving ditty about having yourself a good time that feels like it’s propelling you to the top of a mountain.
18. Todd Terje – It’s Album Time
This is easily the disco-y dance album of the year. And yet, with the exception of Daft Punk, I don’t really like disco-y dance music. But I loved this album. Oh boy, it gets pretty weird too. This album is the Mr. Bungle’s California of dance music. Also, Bryan Ferry randomly pops up mid-album for an incredibly unexpected and deeply moving intermission track.
17. The Knife – Shaken Up Versions
The Knife’s follow-up to their 2007 masterpiece Silent Shout, the ambitious and ultimately alienating album Shaking the Habitual was featured in my top ten last year. This year, The Knife embarked on their final tour before calling it quits as a band. I was fortunate enough to witness their Oakland concert on a very limited US tour. This release – a studio treatment of many of their songs as they were performed live on this tour- gives just a glimpse into the live experience of Shaking the Habitual. A delightful treat for the fans, it also might attract some new fans with its infectious beats and ethereal rhythms. I’ll miss The Knife and will mourn their demise but I respect their reasoning. Karin Derijer Andersson and her brother Olof made it very clear that The Knife would exist only as long as it served a purpose. With Shaking the Habitual, they have fulfilled what they aimed to accomplish. The Knife is dead. Long live The Knife.
16. Sturgill Simpson – Meta-Modern Sounds in Country Music
LSD munching, Waylon Jennings in the 70s sounding, Kentucky native makes good ingesting various psychedelic drugs and creating a trippy country music record about consciousness expansion and finding love in the far corners of the universe? Yes, please.
15. Shabazz Palaces – Lese Majesty
Seattle’s very own Shabazz Palaces have created perhaps one of the most deeply psychedelic hip hop records of all time. Lese Majesty is a strange mythical journey through time and space disguised as a hip hop album. Clearly, rap music is not only thriving in Seattle, it’s reinventing the genre. But Macklemore still sucks.
14. Perfume Genius – Too Bright
On the single, Queen, a fancy, awkward gay boy sings “No family is safe/when I sashay” with the command, confidence, and swagger of a fucking god and I believe him. Though my favorite track on this new album from Seattle artist Mike Hadreas is easily Grids. Upon first hearing it, it immediately reminded me of the throbbing Suicide track, Ghost Rider, which of course, was later sampled by M.I.A on the only standout track from her album Maya, the amazing Born Free.
13. Ty Segall – Manipulator
I’m still trying to make amends for some dumb shit I said about Ty Segall a few years ago when he dropped 3 albums in a single year. As stated on last year’s list, I have since seen the light. Well, true to form, Ty Segall released multiple records with multiple bands this year but Manipulator is without a doubt the jewel in this year’s Ty Segall crown. On this double album, Ty’s blend of psych, garage, and glam reaches its culmination in terms of refinement and production. Ty also plays every single instrument on this beast of a recording. If you listen to this record, there is one important caveat; play it fucking loud!
12. Caribou – Our Love
In many ways, the new Caribou record delivers exactly what one would expect from a new Caribou record; incredibly solid execution from beginning to end and an ever evolving sound. This latest offering has all the cerebral aspects of past work but shifts focus to create a much more groove-oriented album than past Caribou efforts. This is a delightfully textural headphone album that could also inspire a dance party at any moment.
11. Brian Eno & Karl Hyde – High Life
This is without a doubt the least boring thing Brian Eno has done in years. This album, one of two that Eno recorded this year with Underworld’s Karl Hyde, is driven by steady, repetitive, sometimes syncopated beats and rhythms. The opening track, Return, evokes Eno-produced U2 albums in the form of an extended drone. Meanwhile, Lilac sounds like Eno-produced Talking Heads albums in the form of a krautrock-informed melody. The track DBF, with its glitchy afrobeat rhythms, sounds like Aphex Twin taught Fela Kuti how to make electronic music. And all of this is has Hyde’s unmistakable Underworld sound to it as well. I’m really amazed by how well this record works. In my opinion, Brian Eno is a god. This record is a fine reminder of that belief.
10. Lana Del Rey – Ultraviolence
With Ultraviolence, the Lana Del Rey Character has become fully realized. This record comes out swinging with a barrage of incredibly beautiful songs. Shades of Cool is still my favorite track but there is greatness to be found in many others including the title track, Brooklyn Baby, and West Coast. On Brooklyn Baby, Lana bests Karen O’s classic line from Fever to Tell closer, Modern Romance,”Well I know I’m just a fool/But I know you’re just as cool/and cool kids/they belong together.” Lana’s take on things is a little different; “Yeah, my boyfriend’s pretty cool…but he’s not as cool as me.” Mid-album, things start to get dreadfully dull , languishing in some themes that ultimately just become redundant, particularly the Sad Girl/Pretty When I Cry combo. From there, the album struggles to recover with Fucked My Way Up to the Top and others. Overall, this record is pretty fucking amazing, particularly the first half. It’s light years ahead of the often terrible Born to Die album. That said, if LDR is going to continue to develop as an artist, I hope she can squeeze more depth out of this character she has created for herself. Otherwise, this record might be the peak of her artistic output.
9. Parquet Courts – Sunbathing Animal
This record is punk rock meets Pavement. These guys did pretty well with their debut record a few years ago but here, they have stepped up their game tremendously. I don’t feel like saying any more. It’s freaking awesome from beginning to end. It’s also about a kitty. Listen to it. Here’s the title track:
8. Flying Lotus – You’re Dead!
With each release, Steven Ellison takes us on a thematic journey. 1983 explored new beginnings. Los Angeles took us on a journey through the artist’s city. Cosmogramma, oh sweet Cosmogramma, is an epic interstellar journey (and my favorite FlyLo album). Until the Quiet Comes was a subtle meditation on dreams. With You’re Dead!, well, I trust that you can imagine where FlyLo will be taking you. And if this album is any indicator, death is freaking awesome! Rest assured, the exclamation point in the title is quite deliberate. This record is at once his most esoteric and experimental album and also maybe his most accessible. Who knew that exploring death would involve a whirlwind of speedy free-form jazz motifs? As always, the hip-hop influence is deeply present; FlyLo’s alter-alter-ego, rapper Captain Murphy even shows up to the party. The record also hits some incredibly soulful peaks. Flying Lotus delivers the goods once again. Enjoy.
7. Mac DeMarco – Salad Days
featuring guest writer Megan
Hi folks! It’s the wife! I’m so excited to be asked to play along. For much of the year, this album has been vying for my #1 spot, toe to toe with War on Drugs. Here’s my review of this great laid back rock album.
Salad Days is a quirky, playful, low-fi record. Not a single note on this album is approached head on. Every melody is slid around, bent under, fallen towards as though staying in tune just took too much effort. The effect is inebriating. Mac’s vocals provide a wonderful juxtaposition to the intoxication- steady, warm and comfortable, though not so perfect as to be disingenuous. Jason has been listening to a lot of bands lately that make me feel like I’m 19, drunk on new found freedom, driving around the corn fields (see Kurt Vile, The War on Drugs.) This album makes me feel similarly bittersweet, like a long night of partying is coming to an end and I’m passing out in my boyfriend’s well-worn flannel.
Don’t let that romantic description fool you. Mac DeMarco is a fucking weirdo. The one moment when Mac’s guitar stands still is on Let My Baby Stay, a simple love song reminiscent of Tonight You Belong To me, that’s either written about a loved one or some smack. Hard to say. Then there’s Passing Out Pieces, a dreamy track that sounds like Sgt. Peppers on acid. Or… Sgt. Peppers on more acid. Or maybe that’s just my impression after watching this WTF of a music video. Gotta love a musician who gains mainstream attention and still can’t be bothered to buy a new t-shirt or comb his hair.
After all is said and done, if you aren’t in love with this quirky stoner, his charming as fuck ending to the album will make you fall. “Hi guys, this is Mac. Thank you for joining me. See you again soon. Bye bye.” Aww.
6. St. Vincent – St. Vincent
I often find myself complaining about that lack of rock goddesses in a post-90s musical landscape. Looking back, it seems like we had so many to choose from. These days, they’re fewer and farther between. But this is the year that St. Vincent’s Annie Clark joined the lineage of rock goddesses; evident by an album cover featuring Annie perched on her throne, looking like something straight out of the introduction to Alejandro Jodorowsky’s film The Holy Mountain.
This self-titled record, St. Vincent’s fourth, is Annie Clark at her most confident…and her most weird. One of my favorite things about Annie is her distinct and innovative style as a guitarist. She prefers are harmonic approach rather than big sprawling solos. Her jazz-informed guitar licks come in short and concise bursts of psychedelia. Here’s those chops at work in a live performance of Birth in Reverse.
5. Swans – To Be Kind
Michael Gira’s Swans project began a few short years after I was born. For over 15 years, they pioneered the proto-industrial drone/noise rock scene. In the late 90s, Gira disbanded the project to pursue some other musical ideas. Around 5 years ago, he decided to reunite Swans but made it very clear that this wasn’t some cash grab from a nostalgia act. Gira asserts he wanted to achieve new goals as an artist that could only be accomplished with the resurrection of Swans. True to his statements, the new Swans is anything but a nostalgia act. Gira is making the most masterfully executed music of his career. As with 2010’s The Seer, To Be Kind is a gigantic record, clocking in at over 1.5 hours. This music is loud, abrasive, and frankly, disconcerting. It isn’t easy music to listen to. I recommend diving into it in 30 minute bursts, allowing yourself time to wade through the horror to find its cathartic industrial crescendos, metallic drones, acidic vocals, and ultimately to moments of majestic beauty.
4. Aphex Twin – Syro
Syro is the first proper release under the Aphex Twin moniker in 13 years. The landscape of electronic music has changed quite dramatically since the days when Richard James was the trendsetter for an entire genre. And while Syro may not be a revolutionary release determining the new directions in music, it still possesses such masterful execution that it makes all other artists just look silly. Here’s the thing: it’s the new Aphex Twin album. It’s beautiful. Shut up and listen to it.
3. Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 2
On the night of the grand jury announcement that Ferguson, MO police officer Darren Wilson would not face charges for killing an unarmed black man named Michael Brown, El-P and Killer Mike were performing as Run the Jewels across the way in St. Louis. What a concert that must have been. Killer Mike spoke to the audience during the performance and had some powerful things to say. Check it out here.
RTJ2 is easily the hardest hitting –I’m talking Public Enemy level shit- and easily the most important hip-hop record of 2014. While El-P and Killer Mike’s longstanding careers as independent performing artists are respectable, their efforts combined as the Run the Jewels project are something else entirely. Juggernaut is the word that comes to mind. I mean, seriously, with lyrics such as “Top of the morning/My fist to your face is fucking Folgers” and a song called Close Your Eyes (and Count to Fuck), how can one even argue? Yeah, they rap about having sex and smoking weed A LOT but this record is also an indictment on the racist power structures and the injustices faced by people of color in America. This is one of those records that dropped at precisely the right moment in history. This is music for a revolution.
2. The War on Drugs – Lost in the Dream
For most of the year, one of my favorite hobbies has been naming bands that the new The War on Drugs record sounds like. To name just a few, I came up with the following: Dire Straits, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan in the 80s, Mellencamp (God, I fucking hate Mellencamp), Wilco, Paul Simon, Don Henley, Tom Petty, that Rod Stewart song Young Turks, and some Bryan Adams. Not exactly a ringing endorsement for album of the year, eh? Combine that sound with a slew of ambient post-rock bands that aren’t nearly as fun to list and you end up with something completely original because most of all, The War on Drugs sound like The War on Drugs. Goddamn, this record is beautiful. My first day listening to it, I strongly considered calling in sick just so I could stay home and lose myself in it over and over. The album is terribly cohesive and the production is flawless. Adam Granduciel suffered something bordering on a nervous breakdown mixing this record and for his efforts, we remain grateful. Some of my favorite moments are when Granduciel goes Full Dylan, like when he sings “But it won’t be eeeeeeeeeasy” on Eyes to the Wind or when he knows exactly where to place an appropriate “Woo!” like on An Ocean in Between the Waves or Red Eyes, which is easily one of the very best songs released by anybody this year. But I think the sandwich of ambient track The Haunting Idle segueing into the epic Burning really showcases what The War on Drugs can do.
This record has been slated for #1 status from the moment I first heard it. It’s so damn good. Yet, to be honest, I’ve spent quite a few months wishing someone would come along and usurp its position. Unfortunately, neither Kanye nor Frank Ocean finished their new records in time for that 2014 release I was hoping for. It was really starting to look like it wasn’t going to happen. But hey, life can get a lot worse than a record like Lost in the Dream being your album of the year. And yet life can still drop a big fat surprise when you least expect it…
1. D’Angelo and the Vanguard – Black Messiah
You gotta be kidding me. Two weeks before the end of the year proper, this happens? I’m just sitting at home trying to bang out this list. I have nearly all of my choices finalized. I’ve written at least half of my content. I’m comfortable with my choice for Album of the Year. I feel really good about it. And yet I still can’t help but long for something more. Even this late in the game, anything could happen, right? Shit, Beyonce dropped her video album this time last year. There’s still time for Frank Ocean or maybe even Kanye to drop another bombshell. Then out of nowhere, it happens. The long-anticipated third album from D’Angelo is announced only hours before it hits the internet and it’s called Black Messiah. I instantly knew something extraordinary was about to happen, possibly the album event of the year.
Fourteen years in the making, it’s finally here, and the story of its long delay is wrapped in the usual sad stories of self-destruction and redemption, a fascinating story better suited for another time. My friend Zak joked, “This is the Chinese Democracy that America deserves”, a joke sure to be played out in essays all over the internet. I laughed.
Q-Tip and Kendra Foster (of Parliament/Funkadelic fame) were involved in a lot of the lyricism of this album. The guitars sound, at times, like pure Hendrix and other times like Funkadelic’s Eddie Hazel. Rumor has it that most of the guitar work is actually D’Angelo. Apparently, D has been honing his guitar chops in the 14 years since Voodoo. Pino Palladino is once again D’Angelo’s bassist and his riffs are tight and in the pocket but also get taken for a walk in exciting ways.
The opening track, Ain’t That Easy, feels like Sly and the Family Stone with a little Jimi Hendrix and features this really trippy slight lag on the syncopation of the vocals with the music that just tickles the senses. 1000 Deaths is driven by this aggressive ugly pulsating rhythm. I couldn’t help but associate it with some of that freight train-like sound permeating parts of Yeezus combined with the title track from Kid A with its deeply distorted vocals laid over peculiar rhythms. Then on the next track, The Charade, you think you’re hearing songs culled from Prince’s peak years. The Charade is fucking gorgeous and the political punch of “All we wanted was a chance to talk/ Instead we only got outlined in chalk” is heartbreakingly beautiful in a way that reminds me of Stevie Wonder’s Black Man.
Suggah Daddy has a final lyric that would have made Prince blush, even at his dirtiest. Back to the Future (Part I) is driven by a simple beat married with ragtime and a muted guitar picking that sounds like a banjo. It’s utterly infectious. Meanwhile, Prayer conjures up pure Sam Cooke soul with this infectious hip-hop beat that culminates in a guitar solo reminiscent of Eddie Hazel’s famous guitar solo on the Funkadelic track, Maggot Brain. All of this is held together, much like on Voodoo, with a hip-hop element that reveals deep reverence for the late great producer J-Dilla.
The production is flawless. There are layers upon layers of textures on this record. You know, when I got turned on to Frank Ocean’s 2012 album, Channel Orange, I spent a lot of time thinking about D’Angelo’s last record, Voodoo, and marveling at how a music form as seemingly done to death as contemporary R&B (or rock and roll for that matter) can still occasionally birth another game-changing giant. This is another such occasion.
It’s clear that this record is both deeply personal and urgently political. Pitchfork is reporting that this record wasn’t slated to be released until next year but in light of recent protests about the police killing black men in America, D’Angelo insisted that the album be completed before the end of the year and ensured that all involved participated in many an all-nighter in the last month to make it happen. 14 years in the making and in the end, it still required a frantic rush to completion. Outstanding.
After watching video footage of Eric Garner repeating “I can’t breathe” over and over before dying at the hand of the police, and for what, not even a fucking indictment, not even a hint of justice, nothing, I honestly don’t know that we deserve this record. But D’Angelo certainly seems to think we need it and we are grateful for it.