I’m not going to claim to be someone who deeply understands music at its roots. I don’t play an instrument, and I know nothing of theory, but I love all different genres of music and I know how to talk about things I love, so this is just a natural progression of that. I managed to listen to eighty-five new albums from 2014, and now that the year is over, I want to reflect on the twenty that stuck out to me the most. Here are my twenty favorite albums of 2014.
But first, here are ten great albums that unfortunately didn’t make the cut:
Animals as Leaders — The Joy of Motion
Freddie Gibbs & Madlib — Piñata
Future Islands — Singles
iamamiwhoami — Blue
J. Cole — 2014 Forest Hills Drive
Leonard Cohen — Popular Problems
Open Mike Eagle — Dark Comedy
Opeth — Pale Communion
Tycho — Awake
The Wytches — Annabel Dream Reader
And now onto the list.
- Iceage — Plowing Into the Field of Love
Plowing Into the Field of Love is Iceage’s third studio album, but the post-punk noise rock group has only been around since 2008. They have all of the grit and lo-fi goodness of a far more established punk band, with the kind of sonic variety that I don’t always hear in post-punk acts these days. As chaotic as the tracks on Plowing Into the Field of Love are, there’s also a level of beauty to them, with the ballad-esque “On My Fingers” and the horn-heavy “Glassy Eyed, Dormant and Veiled” being two standouts.
- Busdriver — Perfect Hair
I love hard-hitting hip-hop beats, and the production on Perfect Hair hits with more ferocity than a large majority of this year’s hip-hop releases. While not always consistently aggressive, the beats here are almost always loud and penetrative in some way. Busdriver’s manic and varied flow adds another layer of pandemonium and unpredictability to this album. The bass-heavy “Ego Death” is my favorite track on the album, featuring two excellent guest verses by wordsmith Aesop Rock and wild-man Danny Brown.
- Panopticon — Roads to the North
Black metal is like black coffee to me; I can enjoy it, but more often than not, I prefer to have something mixed into it to help it go down more easily. Panopticon’s Roads to the North scratches that itch by blending black metal with folk music, of all things. The end result is a perfect combination of brutality and melody. Interestingly enough, Panopticon is actually the solo project of one man, Kentucky native Austin Lunn, but Roads to the North is as full-bodied and riveting as the stuff of any actual metal band you’ll hear today. The album begins strongly with the beautifully-titled “The Echoes of a Disharmonic Evesong” and only continues to impress from there.
- FKA twigs — LP1
There’s something eerie about Tahliah Barnett’s debut album LP1, but there’s also something incredibly sexy about it. You’d have a hard time finding a more ethereal, wispy, and atmospheric pop album from 2014. Her two big singles off of the album (“Two Weeks” and “Pendulum”) are both great (the third single, “Video Girl,” is solid but less memorable), but “Lights On” is my personal favorite track off the album, seemingly combining the chorus of one song with the verses of another, pretty much flawlessly. Incorporate various strange sounds coming in and out of the background, and you’ve got one infectiously weird pop tune in one infectiously weird pop album.
- Run the Jewels — Run the Jewels 2
Killer Mike is a great emcee. El-P is a great emcee. Combined, you get Run the Jewels, which released its self-titled debut last year, and followed it up with an even better album in Run the Jewels 2. I actually didn’t love this album upon first listen, but given that it may just be the most critically-acclaimed hip-hop album of 2014, I forced myself to give it another go. During my second visit, it became more and more difficult to ignore the chemistry between the two halves of the RTJ duo, and I ultimately came out the second time loving the banger after banger after banger than Run the Jewels 2 offers, with “Blockbuster Night Part 1” and “Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)” being the two that I revisit most often.
- Sun Kil Moon — Benji
Sun Kil Moon is the alternative folk rock project of one Mark Kozelek, and Benji is quite an interesting experiment in lyricism. Kozelek most likely isn’t the first person to attempt to write stream-of-conscious lyrics, but he certainly pulls it off like a professional. “Carissa” opens the album, telling the story of the death of Kozelek’s second cousin Carissa and the way Kozelek reacts to it. There’s no verse-chorus-verse type of structure here; practically every song on Benji is entirely without structure, but the lack of organization actually adds an emotional punch to each song, as if we are audience to Kozelek’s unfiltered and unedited emotions.
- Sa-Roc — Nebuchadnezzar
I don’t often deal in hyperbole, but Sa-Roc may be one of the best female rappers to hit the scene since Lauryn Hill’s landmark 1998 album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, and Nebuchadnezzar one of the best albums by a female rapper to drop since Miseducation. Nebuchadnezzar fully embodies who Sa-Roc is and what she stands for, showing that the emcee can discuss topics such as racism just easily as she can turn the typical brag tracks on their heads. Seek out the title track for the former, “Legendary” for the latter, and “The Who?” for a little bit of both.
- Flying Lotus — You’re Dead!
Flying Lotus’s latest album is also maybe the liveliest of his entire discography, and certainly the jazziest. As always, listeners are treated to layers upon layers of psychedelic instrumentals and crisp production, often acting as the background beats for excellent guest verses. Kendrick Lamar in particular is wonderful as the vocal centerpiece of “Never Catch Me,” the album’s big single and perhaps its best track, a laid-back piece of hip-hop that turns into an instrumental mishmash of different synthetic sounds. Flying Lotus comes from the same school as the late, great Nujabes, valuing lushness and atmosphere over bangers when it comes to hip-hop beats.
- La Roux — Trouble in Paradise
Trouble in Paradise replaces the punchy synths of La Roux’s self-titled debut with more nostalgic pop grooves, creating an entirely different but equally enjoyable dance pop record. This comes as quite the pleasantry, considering the fact that La Roux producer Ben Langsmaid left the project in 2012 (hence the majorly different pop sounds). The lyrical topics here vary, but almost every track here is breezy and dance-friendly in its own right, especially the catchy-as-hell opening track, “Uptight Downtown.” There’s a lot of Moroder-esque synth going on in Trouble in Paradise, and the same energy people have come to expect from Elly Jackson.
- Beck — Morning Phase
“Turn Away” alone would earn this album a spot in my top twenty, but thankfully there’s more to it than the fact that it contains my absolute favorite song of the year. Morning Phase is a slow album, but an incredibly beautiful and relaxing blend of guitar, piano, soft drumming, strings, and some airy and distorted background vocals. Beck’s low key singing melds with these background instrumentals perfectly. There is a little bit of rawer folk on the album, as with the track “Say Goodbye,” but tracks like “Morning,” “Blue Moon,” and “Waking Light” appear to be more layered. Much of it reminds me of Coldplay’s 2002 album A Rush of Blood to the Head, and I mean that in only the best way.
- Behemoth — The Satanist
Twisted and brutal, The Satanist is the musical equivalent of being lit on fire and blasted into the core of the Sun. My God, if there is a 2014 metal album that’s more kick-ass than The Satanist, then I haven’t heard it. It hits listeners with waves upon waves of harsh guitar riffs and powerful drum beats from “Blow Your Trumpets Gabriel” onwards. You may end up looking like the dude from Scanners by the end. The Satanist may not do anything new with the death metal genre, but it does a remarkable job of reminding me why I listen to death metal to begin with.
- Snarky Puppy — We Like It Here
Every track on this album is an adventure. We Like It Here combines a cacophony of instruments, from saxophones to trumpets to guitars, to create a progressive and impressively multi-layered jazz fusion experience. The immaculately detailed production alone is enough reason to revisit this album. To take as many instruments as they have and still come out with a result as crisp as We Like It Here is a rare feat, especially in jazz music.
- Wild Beasts — Present Tense
Present Tense is such an easy listen. I really love the looping, frantic, chaotic background in “Wanderlust,” and the descending vocals in the “Mecca” chorus are gorgeous. “A Simple and Beautiful Truth” might have one of the loveliest and catchiest choruses of the year. “A Dog’s Life” is absolutely haunting. The vocals in every track are as smooth as the synth-infused pop rock backing them. Present Tense is a lot less punchy than their previous album, 2011’s Smother, but it’s all the better for it.
- D’Angelo — Black Messiah
D’Angelo returns after a fourteen-year hiatus with Black Messiah, an outstanding combination of soul, funk, and even some hints of noise rock. Questlove of The Roots, one of my favorite drummers from possibly my favorite hip-hop act, provides drumming on “The Charade” and “Another Life,” while lyrics for “Ain’t That Easy” and “Sugah Daddy” (the latter of which is one of the best tracks on the album) were co-written by A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip. Still, this album feels like it’s cohesive and distinctly belonging to D’Angelo.
- Ariel Pink — pom pom
Ariel Pink is like a student of the pop genre. pom pom doesn’t really have one distinct sound, but rather acts as more of a sampling on various pop and pop-like styles of music throughout the ages. “Plastic Raincoats in the Pig Parade” reminds me of a Beatles song, something like “Octopus’s Garden” or “I Am the Walrus,” some of their stranger songs that coincidentally are based in the animal kingdom. “White Freckles” feels like a pseudo-B52’s track. My favorite track on the album, “Not Enough Violence,” is this epic Bowie-esque pop track, with Pink belting out lyrics like “You’re fertilizer on the body farm.” It’s twisted but super catchy, and I love it.
- St. Vincent — St. Vincent
St. Vincent’s lo fi, noisy, self-titled art pop album is the pop record of the year. Annie Clark clearly loves her guitars, as the album has plenty of guitar sounds, with a myriad of distortions and effects on them, creating this really scratchy, raw, sometimes shrill sound to them. Tracks like “Rattlesnake” and “Birth in Reverse” exemplify the core sound of the record perfectly, but the two best songs, “Digital Witness” and “Prince Johnny,” actually stray from this sound; “Digital Witness” emphasises a fantastic set of groovy horns over guitar, and “Prince Johnny” is a very atmospheric and haunting tune. St. Vincent sort of takes electronics the opposite route of most artists. Rather than using electronics to smoothen out and clean up gritty instruments, Clark and producers use them to strip the instruments to an even rougher center.
- BADBADNOTGOOD — III
BADBADNOTGOOD is known for combining jazz with electronic music and slathering the fusion in muddy and grimy distortion. While their previous album, BBNG2, focused on instrumental covers of hip-hop songs from the likes of Kanye West and Tyler the Creator, III is far more interested in original content. There are a few jazz tracks like “Triangle” and “Confessions,” but the electronic portion of their signature sound wins out here. “Can’t Leave the Night” is the standout track, with a thumping bass that benefits from powerful subwoofers.
- Timber Timbre — Hot Dreams
Hot Dreams is one haunting folk album. Apparently it’s not uncommon to add trippy and atmospheric elements to traditional folk music; psychedelic folk is an entire genre based on that premise. I’d never heard psychedelic folk prior to Hot Dreams as far as I can recall, but for anyone looking to get into the genre, this album is a great place to start. The title track is one of the best singles of the year, to boot, layered in the smoothest of jazzes.
- Swans — To Be Kind
A little over two hours in length, To Be Kind may be the most ambitious album I’ve heard this year, and perhaps this decade. It’s ominous, tumultuous, and unsettling, with Michael Gira’s deep, booming vocals adding to the hellish atmosphere of this experimental rock album. To Be Kind was my introduction to Swans, and having gone back and listened to some of their other albums, it has become abundantly clear to me that they are a musical force to be reckoned with. This album is perhaps at its strangest with “Just a Little Boy (for Chester Burnett),” with Gira’s distorted vocals haphazardly yelling phrases like “I’m just a little boy!” and “I’m not human!” while people applaud in the background.
- The Antlers — Familiars
The Antlers is another new band for me. Familiars is beautifully melancholic in its lyrical content, and yet its horn-heavy instrumentals can often be uplifting. Lead vocalist Peter Silberman’s vocals are reminiscent of the great Annie Lennox’s pipes, and this is most evident in “Palace,” the album’s opening track and a gorgeous rumination on the inevitability of innocence lost, as well as the beauty in accepting that as a part of life and not letting it affect one’s self-worth. However, the track that has the distinct honor of being both the best track on Familiars and the best single of 2014 is “Hotel,” a song about the transcendence of the soul beyond the physical body it inhabits, and that we exist as more than our names and physical properties (and much like a hotel, these things are only temporary). I’m the farthest thing from a spiritual person, but it’s hard for me not to appreciate the poetry of tracks like these. As a whole, Familiars works as an atmospheric and echoey reflection on what it means to exist and be human, but even when broken up and examined track-by-track, Familiars doesn’t hit a false note.