2014: Music in Review

It is a sign of impending age that less and less time is devoted to superficial pursuits like keeping up with the music scene and more spent with family. Last year I could largely get away with this selfish pursuit because my wife and I were blessed with our daughter late in the year - the majority of this year was spent with my wife on maternity leave, learning how to care for human life and reveling in her perfection. Needless to say, music and entertainment in general tends to take a backseat to these pursuits, but becomes sweeter when you allow it in. I suspect my diminished intake of music this year will be an anomaly, as our daughter responds very well to music, enjoying anything from my wife's more mainstream tastes to daddy's esoteric electronic beats - we need to enjoy imposing our music on her before she realizes her parents' musical taste is terrible.

I could not detect an overarching theme to this year in music due to my disconnect: pop stars came and went, horrible music was played on the radio, many of my favorites came back suddenly, and there was a huge flavor for nostalgia. April marked 20 years since the death of Kurt Cobain, and the more time I spend thinking about him, as an artist and as a human, the more I realize we are worse off now without his voice. Not to mention that 20 years is a whole hell of a lot of time in my life; could it have been so long when it feels like just last week? A lot of music sites I visit tend to be written by people of my age, and so it is that we wallow in our youth, when all was better. I suspect many of these people came into music around the same time I did, and it definitely showed, with the year's parade of commemorations of 1994, the year Cobain left. It is now 20 years since my own immersion in music, and I am aching to waste some time organizing the music of my youth in the rigid lists I enjoy making. Only time will tell. Enjoy the look back on 2014!

Albums of the Year

40. Mica Levi, Under the Skin

It's entirely possible that Mica Levi (better known as Micachu) read Michel Faber's novel, was inspired to compose a skin-creeping musical accompaniment, and in turn influenced acclaimed director Jonathan Glazer to adapt the music into an unsettling existential meditation on dread. One of the most perfect marriages of image and sound at the movies in recent years, and the best stand-alone soundtrack since Reznor and Ross' The Social Network.

Lipstick to Void

39. Untold, Black Light Spiral

Anticipation was huge for Untold's debut album, and the man did not disappoint those looking for utter menace and ugly synths. Any album that begins with five minutes of wailing ambulance sirens and spends the remainder thrashing like a wounded animal underwater is bound to be divisive, but when you're looking to spread some misery in a cheery day, you could not have done any better this year.

Drop It On the One

38. Scott Walker + Sunn O))), Soused

A pairing that was dreamed up in 2009 only saw the fruition come this year, but was it ever worth it. The foremost progenitors of doom/black metal guitar roars supporting the baroque vocals of one of rock's most vivid singers and storytellers in a 50-minute assault on your good senses. The perfect soundtrack to your bleak rainy afternoon.

Promotional Commercial

37. Caribou, Our Love

Dan Snaith's first album as Caribou in four years is also the first Caribou album that doesn't represent a startling change in style from the previous. Considering that his last album was the excellent Swim (and he subsequently explored a similar sound with his Daphni project in 2012), that is not a bad thing. The big dance rhythms, warm analog washes of sound and earthworm melodies are still present, but they feel safe and explored here - not a bad thing when you're looking for a sure thin

Our Love

36. Big K.R.I.T.,Cadillactica

Running in the proud vein of previous Southern rap classics from OutKast and UGK, K.R.I.T.'s sophomore album has an overhanging concept (the creation and destruction of the planet Cadillactica), and a stable of outside producers (a sizable risk considering his past as a self-produced rapper) - the result is a rich sonic tapestry, packed with metaphor, and a clinic in 808 bangers.


35. Fucked Up, Glass Boys

Fucked Up had nowhere else to go after exploring the outer edges of their sound on Polaris-winning The Chemistry of Common Life and especially the jam-packed concept album David Comes to Life - the solution was to pare down and boil down their three-guitar assault into a brutally concise 42-minute album of 10 tracks. With no concept to free (constrict?) them, the band largely deals with growing old within the punk scene while trying to remain true to youthful ideals - while rocking twice as hard as any of their peers.

Sun Glass

34. Actress, Ghettoville

Supposedly the final album under Darren Cunningham's critically adored Actress moniker, this obtuse bit of electronic music meanders and floats, closer to the hard-hitting 2008 album Hazyville than his pair of masterworks on the Honest Jon's label from earlier in the decade. Like all his works, this one takes its time in burrowing under your skin, the endless repetitions and tracks that go nowhere revealing themselves as integral to the puzzle. Not an easy listen, but easy to get lost in.


33. Beck, Morning Phase

Although we never saw the hinted-at second album that Beck was working on in hopes of releasing in 2014, his first album (that wasn't sheet music) in six years was a nostalgic companion piece to his 2002 masterwork Sea Change. Songs of melancholy wrapped in Beck's own stunning production values (this is one lush and immersive record), it is a lovely, mature and unassuming album from a man who made a career of being a chameleon.

Heart Is A Drum

32. Gesloten Cirkel, Submit X

At times it feels great to lay down and surrender to the beat - and this (maybe) Russian-based producer's relentless assault of 303's and 808's is the ideal album to beat you into oblivion. A solid hour of drums and cheeky instrumentation, best enjoyed at chest-vibrating levels.


31. Lone, Reality Testing

Matt Cutler's 2012 album Galaxy Garden was one of the young decade's great pleasures, a day-glo album of unbridled joy and cosmic eclecticism. It was no small feat that he managed to improve on that album here by incorporating his earlier love and what he spent several years making: hip-hop. Namely, an intoxicating shuffle that lends these perfectly produced gems a gravity, like future instrumental hip-hop that doesn't wear out its welcome. Another triumph from a great producer.

2 is 8

30. Opeth, Pale Communion

The ridiculous "is it heavy" argument no longer holds water for Opeth - and when you're a band with Still Life, Blackwater Park, and Ghost Reveries to your name, you can tell the haters to kindly revisit those records for death growls and sludgy guitars. Mikael Akerfeld continues to follow his muse, and the muse says more prog please, a continuation of the sound explored on Heritage, and much richer in its complexity. Another stunning display of musicianship, crisply and beautifully recorded, as heavy as you like.

Cusp of Eternity

29. How to Dress Well, "What Is This Heart?"

Starting off with a lone guitar and his unfiltered voice, you could tell Tom Krell was aiming to establish his own presence here. As personal as its cover, as sprawling and eclectic as he's threatened to become for years, as great an album as you could sense Krell's had in him from the start, this third album improves vastly on his Total Loss record, and finds him abandoning the woozy R&B texture that he helped pioneer on 2010's Love Remains. The definitive HTDW album - so far.

Very Best Friend

28. Liars, Mess

The most consistent band in their inconsistency, Liars have long forged their own path, creating a firestorm behind them, and a long list of musical styles they played with and discarded - Mess is a wide-eyed surface-deep album of riotous noise about consuming culture passively. Dilettantes? Possibly. But in terms of bravely exploring to their heart's content, there is no more exciting band to keep an eye on.

Mess on a Mission

27. The War on Drugs, Lost in the Dream

A synthesis of 80's heartland rock (Springsteen, Adams, Mellencamp et al.), Dylan drawl, and 70s psychedelic krautrock swirl, Adam Granduciel's newest work is an hour-long exploration of his problems underneath a gauzy texture that always threatens to (and often does) go off on a space-rock jam, lulling you into a complacent and contemplative mood. In a year with so many problems, it was good to zone out is someone else's worries, perhaps explaining this album's huge success with end-of-year critics.


26. Ty Segall, Manipulator

Ty Segall, for all his prolificness in the past few years, was always a diligent editor and judge of length. Why do one long album when you can do two shorter ones on the fly? His newest was written and rehearsed over a span of months (in itself a huge break from tradition), and released as a monolithic LP. The upside? 17 tracks of Segall at his crunchy, rollicking, witty best. The downside? 17 tracks of Segall at his crunchy, rollicking, witty best - in one sitting. Easily remedied of course, but this goes down like waaay too much chocolate cake at once.

The Singer

25. Swans, To Be Kind

The third Swans masterpiece in a row since their unlikely comeback triumph, this double album scans as more polite and easier than 2012's The Seer, but repeated visits with it (challenging as they are) reveal the depth of the music and sentiments within. It ends on a grace note, but the journey there is as satisfyingly crushing and exhilarating as ever before.

A Little God in My Hands

24. Shabazz Palaces, Lese Majesty

This is an album that I am still not sure if I love or merely tolerate. First off, you cannot relegate this into a mere "hip-hop" placement - the genre has never been so thoroughly subverted as Shabazz has done for the second time now. Second, it is nearly impossible to compare to their 2011 debut Black Up - that album was recognizable as hip-hop, but as soon as "Dawn in Luxor" melts into view, you are in another galaxy altogether. The song suites are obscure and inscrutable. This album will demand your full attention.

Motion Sickness

23. HTRK, Psychic 9-5 Club

Australian trio HTRK were cruelly downsized into a duo when bassist Sean Stewart committed suicide during the making of their previous album Work (Work, Work) - that they would carry on is no small accomplishment, but that they made an album of such gravitas and serene beauty is a small miracle. They have come a long way from their MBV-esque reverbed guitars into a hypnotic melange of understated loops and oft-indecipherable lyrics. A late night essential.

Blue Sunshine

22. Reagenz, The Periodic Table

A spiritual cousin to Luomo's classic 2000 album Vocalcity, this 3-LP collection of 6 extended techno workouts from Move D and Jonah Sharp was recorded at the Bunker's 10th anniversary party last year, and released as an exercise in slowly percolating techno, a seamless 75-minute journey that goes all over without seeming to move an inch.


21. The Bug, Angels & Devils

Two sides of one coin, the Bug's first album under that alias in six years does not reach the glorious heights of London Zoo, but does bring Kevin Martin's dichotomy to a startling endpoint. His menacing, unsettling quiet music - all gut churning bass and dead static - opens the album, and his rudest beats make up the last half. I'm unsure if it wouldn't have been better to mix the tracks up rather than keep like together, but this is undoubtedly the essential Bug album.


20. Call Super, Suzi Ecto

An unassuming album that creeps up on you in its understatement, preferring a steady thrum to a persistent bump, JR Seaton's full-length as Call Super is a deconstruction of his techno style into an ambient realm, with acoustic instruments sprinkled throughout. The result is a supple and elegant album that takes its time to sneak up on you, but when it does, it does not let go.


19. U2, Songs of Innocence

It is one of the hilarious paradoxes of being the biggest band in the world that when you give away your brand new album - the first in five years - for free as an instant download into peoples' iTunes account, 5% of the world reacts as if you shat in their mouth while the other 95% silently rejoices. Or that when a stolid music publication names you their #1 album of the year, the widespread reaction is scorn. No matter. This is one of U2's most personal albums; Bono's most nakedly confessional lyrics since Pop, their first without the Eno/Lanois tandem behind the boards in a generation. Not all the elements are flawless (some choruses could use a bit more personality), but with U2 you know what you are getting: new album, tour announcement, grievous Bono injury, flawless live show that I for one cannot wait for in May.

Sleep Like a Baby Tonight

18. Spoon, They Want My Soul

Transference was a bit of a wet fart in the Spoon discography, a seemingly unfinished album of demos that nonetheless retained their typical sound while alienating a lot of fairweather fans. It has taken a long time for Spoon to return (blame Britt Daniels' various side projects), but this new album should reclaim those lost fans with a sound not dissimilar to past triumphs from the 00's. If you love Spoon, you know that you are perfectly safe in their hands. Again.

Inside Out

17. Arca, Xen

Possibly the year's breakthrough artist that most people haven't heard of, Alejandro Ghersi has been quietly building his reputation over the past couple of years, working with FKA twigs on her luminous EP's, some guy called Kanye on an album called Yeezus, and announcing that he is a primary collaborator for Bjork's upcoming ninth album. Oh, and he also released his debut album on Mute, an uncompromising collection of sketches and experiments named after his alter ego ("Xen is not really a boy and it's not really a girl, and her mere existence is kind of repulsive and attractive at once"). With such exceptional work done at such a young age, it is not unfair to expect greatness from him.


16. Perc, The Power and the Glory

The electronic sound of England rotting from within, this blast of furious indignation begins with a "Rotten Sound" and a voice struggling to be heard above the din, and hardly lets up the attack over the remaining nine tracks. Although not explicitly political, the raw nerves and oppressive repetition (not to mention a clear reference in the title of "David & George") connote an album that seeks escape from brutality through brutality.

Take Your Body Off

15. Moodymann, Moodymann

Kenny Dixon Jr. has been one of house music's best and most unhinged personalities for nigh on two decades now, and he is not going to be messing with his formula now: 27 tracks of an everything-goes sample-fest that rivals the Dust Brothers in its weirdness, with Dixon himself as the main star, rapping and narrating tales. At its heart it still a strand of deep house, but the steady stream of funk, soul, hip-hop, jazz and R&B come together in a pastiche that never gets old.

Lyk U Use 2

14. Fennesz, Becs

Christian Fennesz has been nothing if not prolific in his career, whether through his numerous collaborations with unlikely bedfellows, to his own solo output. Arguably his high point is 2001's eternal Endless Summer, which Becs (the Hungarian word for his hometown of Vienna) has now come the closest to rivaling in its emotional and aesthetic scope.

Pallas Athene

13. Wild Beasts, Present Tense

Another elegant, understated work from Wild Beasts, this album seemed to have been lost by its early-year release, but gave careful listeners a lot to digest and appreciate over the year. Moving further from the wild sounds of their debut into something more delicate and rich, Hayden Thorpe's falsetto and Tom Flemming's hypnotic low tenor once again swirl around each other in a rewarding tapestry of electronically-enhanced rock. A hugely underrated work by one of the best bands working.


12. TV on the Radio, Seeds

TV on the Radio has long ago passed the stage where they need to prove anything: the foremost rock band of the previous decade would have been justified if they packed it in after the untimely death of bassist Gerard Smith, but they carry on with the restrained, understated, slowly burning rock in the vein of Nine Types of Light. The fire has died down to a steady smolder, and this album promises to bury itself deep within your psyche.

Careful You

11. Ben Frost, A U R O R A

Equal parts noise and shoegaze, the Iceland-based Frost composed this album while on assignment in the Congo, and the violence that seeps into the music is quite stunning. Best listened to (if not appreciated) at high volumes, it begat a remix album (V A R I A N T) equally as powerful - the only problem is its inaccessibility; I received a second copy of this album from Amazon by accident, and I have no idea who I could gift it to.


10. St. Vincent, St. Vincent

The long-awaited breakthrough of Annie Clark as a rock goddess and recognized guitar maestro, her self-titled fourth record brims with unorthodox arrangements and lyrics, nothing too far from her norm, and her performance on SNL undoubtedly cemented her rep in the wider consciousness as an artist to keep an eye on.

Digital Witness

9. Objekt, Flatland

As inscrutable and tactile as its cover, Objekt's debut full-length is an abstract techno workout that has a machine for a heart, but three legs to tear the floor up with. Unconcerned with any type of smooth flow, the album lurches from one unconventional structure and tempo to another, with nary an organic sound in its field. Nonetheless, this is a masterwork of sound design, and it will be fascinating to see where he takes us next.

One Fell Swoop

8. Vessel, Punish, Honey

At this point, we can't even kid ourselves about Vessel's music being techno, or electronic, anymore. A throwback to industrial music (or a pre-industrial time of noise), Punish, Honey is an unforgiving and completely exhilarating search for a new folk music ("somewhere between Gilbert and Sullivan, Coil, and British soundsystem music," according to culprit Seb Gainsborourgh), created by his own creations of crude instruments and ominous tones. Largely unclassifiable, this is not for the faint of heart.

Red Sex

7. FKA twigs, LP1

A meticulously planned and meteoric rise to the top of the heap, FKA twigs' debut followed the hype behind two EPs, and with an immaculate visual aesthetic in her videos, as well as the most spacious sound since the xx's debut, crafted an instant classic.

Two Weeks

6. Todd Terje, It's Album Time

Oh yes, it's album time for Terje, who has surprisingly never made a full-length to compliment his decade-long run of classic tracks and remixes. The cheeky cartoon cover is dead ringer for the louche lounge and disco found within, finding a climax with a Bryan Ferry-assisted cover of Robert Palmer's "Johnny & Mary", and never relenting the pace throughout. A must for a pool-side drink, or a cabin getaway.

Preben Goes to Acapulco

5. Andy Stott, Faith in Strangers

Miles away from the glassy eyed drone and primordial beats of his output from the past three years, Andy Stott has opened the curtains of his work to stunning results: there is still plenty of tense atmosphere and dread throughout, but it is shaded with Alison Skidmore's omnipresent vocals, and the title track even has major chords. A gloriously open album that continues his recent run of excellence.


4. Run the Jewels, Run the Jewels 2

What only last year felt like a one-off victory lap from two unlikely collaborators has now been revealed to be a unique alchemy of two kindred spirits operating in full flight, willing to openly question authority and identity in today's America in between devastating braggadocio and lyrical savagery, supported by a bedrock of typical El-P chaotic noise. And honestly, who thought Zack de la Rocha would figure in 2014's most vital rap album?

Oh My Darling (Don't Cry)

3. Flying Lotus, You're Dead!

What the true concept or linear story behind this album is must be lost somewhere in Steven Ellison's mind, but one thing is for sure: this free-jazz hip-hop odyssey is yet another in his stunning discography that once again puts him in a bind. After what seemed like a dead-end trip into the soul in 2012, Ellison wiggled free and went into the afterlife. Where he goes from here is anyone's guess, but we obviously can't discount his vision or doubt he will find a new plane to explore.

Never Catch Me

2. Aphex Twin, Syro

Throughout his gleeful run of sonic anarchy in the 90s, Aphex Twin was often mistaken for experimentation rather than moulding whatever genre he was playing to his own purposes. Therefore , it is a testament to his pervasive influence on an entire generation of producers that his first album in 13 long years could have been released any time since Drukqs, sounds entirely of its time, and forecasts the future all at once. Warm analog sounds created by a battery of instruments, with little regard to any hot trends in a notoriously fickle genre, Syro is an unexpected delight.

minipops 67 [120.2][source field mix]

1. D'Angelo and the Vanguard, Black Messiah

Really, all D'Angelo had to do was show up with an album half as good as Voodoo, and his placement on my list was guaranteed. That Black Messiah - credited to D'Angelo and the Vanguard - is such a triumph, such an unvarnished, vital, raw, completely outstanding Whole, makes this a runaway choice for album of the year, regardless of its late rush release in response to America's racial troubles of the past year. I am loath to call this an instant masterpiece to be regarded in the same breath as the lofty albums its been compared to already (There's a Riot Goin' On, On the Corner, etc) - yet. However, there is no doubt that the 14 year waiting period, with the years of his legal trouble and silence, was hardly spent idle, and was well worth it.

Really Love

Honorable Mentions

Lana del Rey, Ultraviolence
East India Youth, Total Strife Forever
Future Islands, Singles
Freddie Gibbs & Madlib, Pinata
Kassem Mosse, Workshop 19
Pallbearer, Foundations of Burden
Fatima al Qadiri, Asiatisch
Taylor Swift, 1989
Y. O. B., Clearing the Path to Ascend
Young Fathers, Dead


Various Artists, Hyperdub 10

What should have been a resounding victory lap for Hyperdub turned into a year of extreme highs and lows: the tenth anniversary of the label's founding, with an attendant worldwide tour, leavened by the untimely deaths of their brightest rising star (footwork's leading voice DJ Rashad) in April, and founding voice Spaceape in the fall. Floating atop it all were their slabs of music - four compilations across six discs and 98 tracks, with nary a dud in sight, predominantly of brand new tracks. These four compilations are less a greatest hits compendium than a survey of the label, circa 2014: nods to the past, with plenty of what the future holds. The unreleased Burial track got the lion's share of the press, but this is essential listening to anyone interested in what one of the leading labels in bass music has been up to.

Various Artists, C86

Walking the fine line between reissue and new compilation, Cherry Red has tastefully repackaged the iconic NME cassette with an additional fifty tracks from contemporary artists (and some doubles from the original tape), and augmenting it with a book-length essay on the scene, making this one of the most exhaustive and scholarly musical endeavors of the past few years, a big investment of time but ultimately richly rewarding.

Reissues of the Year

2014 was the 20th anniversary of 1994 - the year I could stretch to as the birth of my total immersion in music and pop culture in general. The list of these releases is staggering: Pulp's His n' Hers, Blur's Parklife, Beastie Boys's Ill Communication, Soundgarden's Superunknown, Weezer, Smashing Pumpkins' Pisces Iscariot, Notorious B.I.G.'s Ready to Die, Nas' Illmatic, Underworld's Dubnobasswithmyheadman, Hole's Live Through This, Oasis' Definitely Maybe...a list to make any year quiver with envy. There were notable milestones and some corresponding reissues. Here are some of the best ones. Surprisingly, they have nothing to do with 1994.

Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin II, Led Zeppelin III, IV, Houses of the Holy
There is no doubt that these reissues are long overdue. With no real anniversaries to celebrate this year (46th of their formation, maybe?), and no real monetary inclinations (they reportedly turned down an $800M offer to reunite live), Jimmy Page took the time to polish up the old master tapes and re-release them throughout the year in various iterations, from a single-disc to a mammoth 2-LP, 2-CD hardcover book edition. The double disc editions (which are the ones I went with) add a second disc of alternate mixes - no real treasures or extensive rare outtakes to find here, proving that the mighty Zep didn't fiddle around much in the studio (see their live albums for proof of their musical alchemy). The sound clarity on the albums proper is amazing, and the rest of the catalogue reissues should be the same high quality in 2015.

The Velvet Underground, The Velvet Underground: 45th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition
Depending on your predisposition to these ultra-deluxe boxes and their questionable bonus material (often repackaged from previous deluxe editions), it can be tough to recommend picking one up. However, this handsome hardcover book-sized reissue of the Velvet's third album is definitely one to cherish. The three discs of different mixes (the original Val Valentin, a "Closet" mix by Lou Reed, and a promotional mono mix) of the original album are just barely different to justify each, while a disc of sessions from late 1969 for the lost 4th album are fascinating, and the two discs of a live performance in San Francisco in November '69 is a real gem: fully 11 of the 14 tracks are previously unreleased, and the sound quality is amazing. Any aging hipster dad can appreciate this set.

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