Before you read through this list of my personal favorite albums of 2014, I want to urge you to check out Nerdist’s list of the top 50 tracks of the year and consider them a metonymic shortlist of the best 50 albums that came out this year; everything from Jack White’s Lazaretto to to Aphex Twin’s Syro and Spoon’s They Want My Soul are represented and absolutely worth your time to check out even as we head into 2015.
But to continue my annual tradition of “best albums,” I am going to cover the ten albums that were the most personally resonant, thought provoking, progressive, or fun throughout 2014 and hopefully, in the process, turn some on to some new music. Be sure to check out previous years’ “Best Albums” lists right here, and let us know your own favorite albums of the year in the comments!
10. Tinashe – Aquarius
In 2014 “R&B” has sublimated into more of an umbrella than a concrete genre, encompassing everything from the uniquely challenging aesthetic of FKA Twigs to the hip-hop steeped work of Ty Dolla $ign to the densely instrumental, politically charged funk mosaics of Neo Soul god D’Angelo. Tinashe is the one artist who comes to mind that was able to represent these disparate styles in the mainstream this year, sort turning an extended family into a nuclear family. And what is funny about that is that she essentially tricked us into thinking she was about to drop a Top 40 record with the release of “2 On”, but what we got instead was a confident LP full of viscid, sexy, breathy R&B that was simultaneously uncompromising and radio friendly.
9. Caribou – Our Love
If you go back and listen to Dan Snaith’s previous two albums successively, you’ll hear vastly different sounds, and together, label-defying dance music that flirts with psychedelia, house music, and more. That is why I was expecting to be surprised yet again, and lo, Snaith a/k/a Caribou made a subtle dance record about love that focuses more on soft vocals, clipped gestures, and electronic flutters. It is one of the few electronic records I heard this year that I would be comfortable putting on in the morning, though I worry that I would transition from dreaming to daydreaming without registering reality adequately.
8. Ricky Eat Acid – Three Love Songs
Ricky Eat Acid’s most realized effort to date sounds like a field recording of someone’s internal thought process. From repetitive mantras (“My only wish is I die real”) to samples of passionate, castigating sermons, Three Love Songs is an inner monologue of someone who is in the vulnerable position of leaving a comfortable sanctuary and independently looking for newfound securities to fill that void. As such, the album provides enough warm, insulated drones to ease you into areas that are abrasive and seemingly ugly, but ultimately essential.
Be sure to check out Ricky Eat Acid’s exclusive mix and illustration he made for us this year right here:
7. Quilt – Held In Splendor
Quilt are a Boston-based folk group that make music your hippie parents, adorned in tye-die Nehru jackets, would have swayed and sashayed to in the muddy pastures at Woodstock. Everything about the group’s sophomore album, Held In Splendor, from the sunny male-female harmonies to the agile, entrancing guitar hooks, sounds authentically far-out, like if members of The Mamas & The Papas, The Fairport Convention and Jefferson Airplane had recorded as a super group in secret and saved their material for decades, until Americans needed a dose of flower-power positivity. This album is full of truly impressive technical musicianship, tight songwriting, and consistently catchy hooks, but you might be too preoccupied undulating and staring at your hands to notice upon first listen.
6. Nick Hakim – Where Will We Go Pt1 & Pt 2?
Nick Hakim was easily my favorite new artist 2014, and virtually every time he released new material from his two soulful Where Will We Go EPs, we wrote about it. That’s because his voice, tender yet confident, is at once warming, calming, and uplifting.
My dad overheard me listening to “The Light” the other day and asked why I was listening to massage music, lol. I rolled my eyes but then I realized he was right. The songs on Where Will We Go wedge themselves into the trouble spots in your psyche and help untangle the knots.
5. St. Vincent – St. Vincent
The internet can be an awful place, and Annie Clark wasn’t afraid to make philosophical jabs at the intangible network that has commandeered our lives with her self-titled album. On St. Vincent, Clark makes music that is at once catchy, technically impressive (her guitar playing is a spectacle), and challenging. You would not expect a concept album about how the digital age is corrupting our senses and morals to be remotely danceable or catchy, yet I find myself singing along easily to lines like, “I am entombed in a shrine of zeros and ones.” Tell me about it, Annie Clark. Tell me about it.
4. D’Angelo – Black Messiah
Black Messiah, D”Angelo’s first album in 14 years is a loaded composition that may never fully reveal itself to me or anyone, though you glean more with each successive spin. It roils and quakes intensely with political abjectness, sexual potency, and frustrated wisdom. Amdist this emotive jungle, however, the album’s mission statement is to find the poetic, serene moments from within its chaos.
After more than a decade of absence from the music industry defined by addiction, reckless behavior, an upsetting mug shot, and ceaseless empty promises from third parties that new material was on the way, it’s bittersweet to finally get this album. It feels shallow to just really like or even love it on a personal level, when its so clearly transcends that. ‘Black Messiah is not one man. It is a feeling that, collectively, we are all that leader.”
He released this album overnight (D’Angelo, who has been silent for 14 years) not as a grand, shiny marketing scheme a la Beyonce, he released this material he has been sitting on since before I was a teenager because he felt not saying anything in 2014 was unconscionable. That is extremely powerful.
3. Run The Jewels – Run The Jewels 2
I wish America didn’t need Run The Jewels. I wish that Killer Mike and EL-P’s album full of brutal, irate, sociopolitical polemics were unwarranted or antiquated. I wish, as do most sane humans, that things had gone much differently this year. I wish, I wish, but here we are, and we are lucky to have the unlikely collaboration between these two middle-aged rappers, both exhausted from critically praised but commercially ignored careers.
With the specters of Michael Brown and Eric Garner looming large in the silent spots between each of RTJ2’s 11 tracks of head-banging hip-hop, the album is an adrenalized, vehement heartbeat. Even though there are jocular moments (“You can all run backwards through a field of dicks!”), it feels like those instances exist only to give us momentary respite from how no-bullshit their music actually is. I am happy for their breakout success this year, but you can tell they are far from sharing that feeling. There is too much important work to do before they’ll feel that way.
2. Sun Kil Moon – Benji
Mark Kozelek, yes this Mark Kozelek, released a devastating, plainspoken album this year that by a most unfortunate coincidence, had an eerie amount of parallels to my own life. Aside from the biographical parallels, I felt kinship to this elegiac LP for the existential questions it raises. They are simple yet impossible to answer.
Most impressive is Kozelek’s ability to tell stories straightforwardly—no room for flowery figurative language here–without sacrificing artfulness or gravity. Nonfiction when handled by a master orator is awe-inspiring (we all loved Serial, right?) And Benji, in all of its seemingly simple observations is an engrossingly universal story of love, death and contrition disguised as an autobiography.
1. Angel Olsen – Burn Your Fire For No Witness
Sand away Angel Olsen’s Roy Orbison-esque warble and her daunting ability to weave hushed folk and incendiary rock n’ roll into contiguous, yet angular sounds, and you are left, with the disquieting poetry of a bard.
On Burn Your Fire For No Witness, Olsen’s technical aptitudes and conversance with her forbears (Everly Brothers, Roy Orbison, Will Oldham) coaxes you into a would-be familiar headspace, save that her lyrics often paint irresolvable, pastoral portraits of loneliness. With glass-eviscerating vibrato on “High & Wild”, Olsen firebombs the listener with the lines, “Im’ either innocent of wise when you look me in the eyes, but you might as well be blind, you might as well be blind, because you don’t see me anymoooore!” And no matter how accusatory her lyrics sound at first, she walks away, knowing full well that she is the culpable one.
I finally had a chance to see Angel Olsen in Los Angeles at The El Rey in November, and after she completed the energetic rock portion of her set, she dismissed her backing band and played a mini set of her quietist solo songs–“Acrobat”, “White Fire”, and others. This part of her set had a piercing silence like I hade never experienced before. No on in the entire venue spoke and I could feel my own pulse in my hands and head. And though she was singing in beautiful, personal prose, I felt like I—on a weirdly autonomic level—empathized fully her.
Do yourself a favor in 2015; take someone you love to and Angel Olsen show and try and describe how it made you feel to one another. It will be a good exercise in emoting.
Matt’s Top 10 Playlist
Post List Notes 2014:
-Spotify is great, but a few of my favorite songs (which were previously Music Geek Tracks of the Day) weren’t in the catalogue and absolutely worth your time. First listen to the vintage soul of Leon Bridge’s “Coming Home”.
-Ty Segall’s Manipulator is another great album (not on Spotify) full of 70s psych rock jams that came out this year and defined my summer. Read our interview with him about his numerous rock ‘n roll influences and check out my favortie new track of his below:
-Shamir Bailey will be hot in 2015 and his track “On The Regular” had me grooving all winter long.
-This year I was fortunate enough to speak with former Ween frontman, Aaron Freeman, fka Gene Ween, about sobriety, life after Ween, and would it means to be a solo musician after serving as one half to a greater whole for the majority of his career. He was articulate, thoughtful, and kind–I highly recommend you read the interview and check out his album.
-The Grammys are fast approaching and they will once again prove their utter irrelevance (I wouldn’t be shocked if the Grammy Board also endorsed the idea of the unsolocited U2 album debacle) by awarding cultural appropriator Iggy Azalea with best rap album instead of giving that honor to artists who actually deserve it like SchooBoy Q or Childish Gambino. I am keeping my fingers crossed for Donald Glover–because the internet was great and definitely worthy of praise.
-I am finally happy to have Azealia Banks back in the conversation, an not just for her petty twitter beefs. She is making music that few others are, and though here ever-delayed debut Broke With Expensive Taste was a bit discontiguous, she boasted a variety of bangers that make me think her next project will be her magnum opus. Could do without another 4 year-wait, but with Interscope out of the picture, I am optimistic.
-I still frequently watch this video of 2-Chainz riding a Segue around his hotel suite.
And with that, I want to wish you dudes a happy and healthy New Year! We’ll you see shortly with even cooler content in 2015.