2014 was a year. A year in which there were records. A year in which some of those records were downright pleasant. A year in which 20 of those downright pleasant records made me particularly happy in my ears and brain:
20. Dead Congregation – Promulgation of the Fall
When I discovered metal, I was 12, and would share a Walkman with my similarly inclined Catholic school pal. We couldn’t get enough of Cannibal Corpse’s debut album Eaten Back To Life, specifically one moment when the cacophony abruptly ceased, and singer Chris Barnes intoned in his throaty roar, “Fuuuccccckkkk yooouuuuuuu!!!!!” It made us laugh, but it was also a form of nourishment, a blast of roughly hewn vulgarity to remind us that the world was a ridiculous place, and that if we were born with original sin, well then so be it. Promulgation Of The Fall brings me back to that feeling. Because this underground Greek ensemble is uncompromisingly brutal in a subsuming, freeing way. The riffs are simple and undeniable, layered and deepened to appropriately pulverizing levels. Solos are short and never showy. And singer Anastasis Valtsanis belts his demonic screeds in a steady, guttural growl, on songs that embrace chaos with open arms, jettisoning millennia of human guilt in the process. (excerpt from my review in The Quietus,6/9/14)
19. Kylie Minogue – Kiss Me Once
Kiss Me Once, Kylie Minogue’s 12th album, continues an impressive streak of ruthlessly addictive dance music that dates at least as far back as 2001’s aptly titled career rejuvenator, “Can’t Get You Out of My Head.” Smartly, Minogue and her deep bench of producers and songwriters stick with the winning formula of caffeinated synth-pop and disco, with a touch of dubstep tossed in for the kids. When it works best, it results in the kinds of choruses that make platitudes sound like rallying cries. The killer, clavinet-laden groove of “Sexy Love” does something to the human brain that makes us forget we’re listening to a song called “Sexy Love,” with a chorus that goes “Gimme that sexy love.” Kind of like how John Lennon’s harmonica tricked us into thinking “Love me do” was a sentence. (excerpt from my review in Slant Magazine, 3/16/14)
18. Coldplay – Ghost Stories
There are times when a truly great movie is precisely what you do not want to see. You want to watch Reversal of Fortune instead, because it’s Sunday and you’re hung over and there’s something gently entrancing about Ron Silver’s hyperactive yin meshing with Jeremy Irons’ laconic sleazeball yang. Coldplay’s sixth LP was this year’s Reversal of Fortune of rock albums, a well-crafted, well-executed drama that wields clichés like hot water bottles – after a long day grappling with intense, ambitious works of art, Chris Martin is here to soothe those aching joints by singing “I love you so / So much that it hurts.” Ghost Stories is possibly the calmest, unfussiest breakup album ever; it’s far more concerned with sounding beautiful than sounding hurt. By weaving elements of James Blake’s bedroom dubstep into the band’s usual earnest-verse/bear-hug-chorus formula, these nine songs possess a touch of winter that does wonders to Martin’s lyric sheet, which would seem pretty hoary on its own. He sounds like a man who is capable of poetry, but has been made indifferent to it by loss. So he makes simple observations about birds and stars and the ocean, leaving the deeper metaphors to those who feel strong enough to plunder them.
17. Archibald Slim – He’s Drunk!
On his debut mixtape, Archibald Slim weeds America’s uneven playing fields until all that’s left are the ugly truths in the soil, proving himself as the most accomplished artist of Atlanta’s ever-expanding Awful Records crew. Producer KeithCharles Spacebar gives the tracks a midnight jazz solemnity that would bend the ear of a young Nas, squashing any expectations that the title of this tape is an entrée to wackiness. In this context, “he’s drunk” is a quote, attributed to anyone who responds to the marginalization and oppression of an entire people by blaming the victims. People who would scoff with a hitch in their voices when they hear “Stay Black and Die,” a song delivered by Slim with something more harrowing than mere fury in his voice: “They tell me, ‘No don’t do it, go and get a job’ / They don’t understand that a fella play the game with different odds / So I know task one is stack dough for your bail / Cause you won’t pass go / Just go straight to jail.” (excerpt from my review in Paste Magazine, 11/25/14)
16. Cibo Matto – Hotel Valentine
“I wonder how many people know their life is like this / Staying at the hotel, renting times, renting a body,” muses Miho Hatori on Cibo Matto’s first effort in 15 years. The sentiment works to chilling effect as the preview to the one-two punch that closes this satisfyingly strange meta-comeback album – the ominous storm of “Housekeeping” and the fragile rise to the heavens that is “Check Out.” I leap toward the close of this brief record because it’s so compellingly open-ended. Hatori and Yuka C. Honda have great fun setting the stage – the catchiest track, “Déjà vu,” combines their trademark rubbery bass lines with a triumphant stroll of a chorus. But it’s those last two songs that make this more than a ’90s nostalgia trip. We’re lured in by the lulling groove of “Housekeeping,” the playful vocalizing of guest Reggie Watts keeping the disquiet at bay for a little bit. But then that maid keeps saying she’s going to “set us free.” And then, before we know it, we’re floating. (excerpt from my review in The Quietus, 2/14/14)
15. Jungle – Jungle
By writing simple, irresistible pentatonic melodies, singing them almost exclusively in falsetto, and pairing them with the kind of moody, heavily synthesized soul grooves that suggest an unhealthy obsession with Marvin Gaye’s Midnight Love album, this camera-shy British duo has created something unpretentious enough to energize a dance floor at 2 a.m., yet curious enough to suggest there’s something just a tad thornier under the surface. Jungle is at its best when its clear goal is to get heads bobbing, like when it argues for the cathartic benefits of endless partying on “Time” – “Don’t let it in / Just let it out / Time and time again.” Or when it leverages the swagger of hardcore capitalists on “Busy Earnin’,” explaining how we “can’t get enough” over hooks so insidious that they’d make any bleeding heart understand. It’s no coincidence that both of these songs possess lively bass lines. The duo is stingy with the low end on much of Jungle, preferring to keep its heads and equalizers in the clouds. (excerpt from my review in PopMatters, 7/15/14)
14. Ty Segall – Manipulator
Ty Segall must be haunted by riffs. How else can you explain the absurdly prolific number of sickening garage rock hooks he’s already churned out (five LPs’ worth since 2012)? They must come to him in dreams, demanding to be released. Last year’s autumnal folk album Sleeper was still mighty catchy, but it also sounded like the kind of palate cleanser that could precede a more significant tonal shift. It wasn’t. Manipulator is an embarrassment of classically Segall-ian riches, 15 tracks that boogie you ragged like a forgotten disc from the Nuggets box set. That his Kinks and Stooges jones hasn’t gotten old is a testament to the songwriting – “Ask your bossman for a raise / Tell your mama she better keep her change” nails that classic rock sweet spot between nonsense and bad-assery – and Segall’s evolving gifts as a singer. The hushed instrumentation of Sleeper pays dividends here, with the artist paying close attention to his vocal melodies and intonations even though they’re back in the fuzzbox fray.
13. Rich Gang – Tha Tour: Part I
Even though he’s only 22, Young Thug’s major label misadventures are already legion. But if there was any doubt that he couldn’t mold his inimitable quirks into universal entertainment, Tha Tour: Part I laid them to rest. Rich Gang consists of Thug, fellow Atlanta mixtape veteran Rich Homie Quan and Dirty South Svengali/Cash Money Records founder Birdman. The latter lays down the recipe for the tape’s luxurious syrup with a spoken word intro about the group’s affinity for “gold turlets,” his pronunciation crucial to his swagger—this is provincial materialism, thousands of miles away from Magna Carta Holy Grail. Thug and Quan sing as much as they spit, over the lush, organ-fueled R&B soundscapes of producers like London On The Track. It’s the lava cake after Black Portland’s backyard barbecue, a satiated dream state triggered by the kind of artistic chemistry you can’t fake. (excerpt from my review in Paste Magazine, 11/25/14)
12. The Roots – And Then You Shoot Your Cousin
When The Roots became the house band for Late Night With Jimmy Fallon in 2009, it was such a good thing – for black artists; for hip hop; for television in general. But for Roots fans, it was also a little scary. A year earlier, the band had inflamed our brains with Rising Down, a raw, sickening ride on the American merry-go-ground of poverty and violence. Now that they were the next Doc Severinsen, would albums like this be a thing of the past? With And Then You Shoot Your Cousin – the third high-quality Roots album of the Fallon era – those fears have been put to bed. Like 2011’s Undun before it, Cousin is supposedly a concept album, but it’s best if you ignore the “story” and let the poverty-stricken poetry and mournfully gorgeous production wash over you. “Never” is an epic achievement, complete with a scratchy choral introduction, pizzicato-sprinkled breakdown, echoing canyon of an opening verse, and that exhilarating moment when all the elements come together. Keyboardist Kamal Gray remains the perpetual unsung hero, grabbing all the best hooks – the solemn backbone of “When the People Cheer”; the dusty saloon groove of “Black Rock”; the triumphant, cathartic chords at the heart of “Tomorrow.” “Some say that happiness will never find you / Until you find yourself,” sings guest Raheem DeVaughn on the latter. As a band that’s as self-aware as any, yet keeps piling on the challenges, The Roots must be happy as hell.
11. Lykke Li – I Never Learn
Is it better to have loved and been shot in the head, or to have never loved at all? This is the grim scenario we’re confronted with on “Gunshot,” one of several over-the-top relationship eulogies that haunt Lykke Li’s third album. Those who had their hearts set on another batch of coy, cloudy electro-pop from the Swedish singer/songwriter might consider the song a bummer, but for the rest of us, it and the other eight tracks that comprise I Never Learn make for a stirring, pristinely rendered expression of heartache. The artist isn’t interested in poetry here. She fills her songs with theatrical 1980s adult contemporary visions – rainy days on lonely roads; hearts that shatter and crack; other hearts that are made of steel; the one that got away. Every lyric lands, however, because they’re not the result of laziness – their author is just too wracked with guilt to bullshit us. (excerpt from my review in The Quietus, 5/12/14)
10. Mastodon – Once More ‘Round The Sun
It’s probably unfair to compare Mastodon to Metallica. They’re from different eras, command different-sized spotlights, and play by different music industry rules. But humor me. Mastodon has been challenging its die-hard fans with a less-thrashy, more-accessible approach, at the same point in its career that Metallica did – on its fifth and sixth records. The good news is, they’re doing it in a different way. Once More ‘Round the Sun is the catchiest, most sludge-free metal LP in its catalog, but what it forsakes in lyrical weirdness (no Cysquatch this time around, folks) it makes up for with a clutch of instant-classic riffs, some of the most powerful singing in the genre, and yet another amazing album cover. Its counterpart in Metallica’s catalog is 1996’s Load, that glossy, “bluesy” turd of betrayal that played to all of the band’s weaknesses (e.g. lyrics that aren’t about war/injustice, singing that does not involve growling). Some cries of dismay have cropped up here and there, but Mastodon has avoided Metallica’s fate by embracing cleaner, richly layered prog instead of melodramatic classic rock. And by being talented enough to help us forget about subgenres while we sing along at full tilt. The thrash is gone, but by no means is the thrill.
9. Tune-Yards – Nikki Nack
After 2011’s w h o k i l l topped the Village Voice‘s Pazz & Jop poll, Merrill Garbus found herself touring arenas with Arcade Fire while trying to maintain her brash, avant-garde sensibilities. Nikki Nack is the result of these warring priorities, with the Oakland-based vocal acrobat railing against social stagnation while simultaneously celebrating the world’s fluorescent beauty. It all works because Garbus and bassist Nate Brenner stick to what they do best: chopped, clattering percussion; sophisticated, bluesy vocal melodies; walls of harmonies that jar and swirl; and spare funk basslines that make thrilling sense of it all. Perhaps nothing possesses the dualities of Garbus’s state of mind more than the album’s first single, “Water Fountain,” an irresistible, manic playground chant of a song, its beat shaped from a Waits-ian junk heap of claps and clangs and Brenner’s punchy bass, with the gusto in Garbus’s voice doing the rest. When the chorus rolls in, it sounds like a nursery rhyme, but then the first verse begins: “Nothing feels like dying like the drying of my skin and bones.” There’s no water in the water fountain, and that’s not just a catchy turn of phrase. This is a song about a failed public works system and a gleeful sing-along. Shades of gray aren’t usually this neon. (excerpt from my review in Slant Magazine, 5/3/14)
8. Run The Jewels – Run The Jewels 2
The chemistry between Killer Mike and El-P was apparent on last year’s Run The Jewels, which didn’t try to be much more than a document of two talented, wise-ass artists having fun. This second volume represents Run The Jewels as a primary career focus for both. The beats are richer and rangier; more attention is paid to sequencing, and all of that boasting comes from pride and momentum rather than just the desire to blow off steam. That said, part of their secret still has to be catharsis. Killer Mike is a legend of the Atlanta underground, whose most famous moments remain guest verses on Outkast tracks, even though his solo work rivals that of his hometown peers. El-P is a candidate for indie-rap Mount Rushmore, thanks to his work as a member of Company Flow and as the founder/house producer of Definitive Jux records, but he’s never sniffed the mainstream. Run The Jewels 2 is a great listen because of the artistry on display, but it’s the pent-up frustration that makes you want to hug your loved ones and thank god for each breath while you set fire to the neighborhood. (excerpt from my review in The Quietus, 11/5/14)
7. Young Thug & Bloody Jay – Black Portland
If the tidal wave of creativity in Atlanta hip hop has a center, it’s probably Young Thug, whose humdrum moniker is belied by a mesmerizing energy on the mic. Here is the next level of Outkast and Lil Wayne’s alien self-identification—a man who is bilingual in the sense that he’s speaking English and Venusian at the same time. Thugga was on three tapes in 2014, and while Black Portland is begging to be remastered, it’s still the best. At the point where rubber bands break, Young Thug is just starting to stretch out, littering his natural, lackadaisical syncopation with quizzical squawks like a chipmunk Busta Rhymes. He finds an ideal foil in Bloody Jay, who sounds gruffly amused throughout, his DJ Holiday basso tipping the scales of tracks like “Movin’” and “No Fucks” from gritty street theater to one deliriously unique party. (excerpt from my review in Paste Magazine, 11/25/14)
6. Swans – To Be Kind
If you were creeped out by the snarling wolf that adorned Swans’ 2012 album The Seer, it’s probably best to avoid the cover of To Be Kind—a screaming, Rockwellian baby that David Lynch would hang above the fireplace. The album within delivers on this unsettling entrée, boiling the meaning of life down to basic human needs while it methodically destroys the world. Yet this appeal to our animal selves is belied by the band’s exquisitely crafted annihilations, like when the angular funk groove of “A Little God In My Hands” gets pancaked by a dump truck of drunken horns, making Radiohead’s “The National Anthem” seem like “I Want Candy”. When bandleader Michael Gira screams “I’m just a little boy,” it’s not a performance. It’s an expulsion. It falls somewhere between the sneer of a playground bully and the sickening croak of a bloated raven. Maybe we all are just infants alone in our cribs, pretending that there are things we need other than love and warmth and bread. If so, this record makes for one hell of a blankie. (excerpt from my review in PopMatters, 12/8/14)
5. St. Vincent – St. Vincent
“Here’s my report from the edge.” If you’re looking for a premise statement for Annie Clark’s stunning fourth album, well there you have it. On St. Vincent, the diminutive axe-slinger sits on all kinds of edges – between pop and avant garde, satire and confession, guitar solos and blood spatter patterns. In her effortless ability to make her singular personality feel universal, Clark summons the spirit of another diminutive axe-slinger; you know, the one who could claim to approximate the sound of doves crying without sounding like a flake. And while there was plenty to like about the two Prince albums we got this year (especially the sci-fi funk opus Art Official Age), it’s St. Vincent that gives us a closer approximation of the Purple One in his ruffled, enigmatic prime. Its guitar riffs consist of hyperactive clusters of notes. Its synthesizers coat everything with a thin layer of late-November ice. Yet it’s pop bliss through and through, delivered with poetic urgency. Clark makes you feel what it’s like to be chased by a rattlesnake, or hallucinate a conversation with Huey Newton, or understand that somebody out there loves you more than Jesus ever could. If you’re looking for a one-way ticket to the edge, she’s comped one for you.
4. Sharon Van Etten – Are We There
Some voices were meant to convey ache. Like Roy Orbison. Or Hank Williams. Or Sharon Van Etten. The Brooklyn transplant warrants comparisons to such hallowed figures on her fourth album, a hypnotic collection of songs about need, and all the stupid and callous ways that others fail at fulfilling it. “I need you to be afraid of nothing,” she sings on the record’s first song, her voice leaping into a yodel on that second word like an eagle peeking above the cloud line. On a record with a three-word title that contains multitudes (Do we exist? Have we reached those goals that we set? Is this the end?, etc.) the production is appropriately reserved-yet-bottomless, a mix of chiming Americana and muffled electronics that sounds like Raising Sand getting lost on a foggy night. It’s the perfect milieu for Van Etten to sing like she’s holding nothing back. Like Roy, she can sing with the kind of quaver that reveals whatever beauty there is to see in the rawest grief. It’s a voice that can bemoan “your love is killing me,” and at the same time be absolute proof that life is good.
3. Cakes da Killa – Hunger Pangs
The line separating hip hop mixtapes from studio albums gets thinner every time another gorgeously produced triumph shows up on DatPiff (see #13 on this list, for example). But one listen to Hunger Pangs and you know you’re hearing a tape. The beats are jagged and guttural and loud. The songs are short, muscular, and barely interested in choruses. Whitney Houston’s between-song banter is fearlessly utilized as a coda. And goddamn is the emcee going off, tearing apart every verse like a gymnast with buzz saws for arms. Cakes da Killa is no stranger to tape brilliance, but Hunger Pangs is on another level. Run The Jewels deservedly got a lot of praise for spiking our adrenaline levels this year. They simply can’t touch Cakes on tracks like “Just Desserts” or “It’s Not Ovah” – just listening to one of his verses should qualify as an hour of cardio. “Coming at n***as like an avalanche,” he spews, not even coming close to hyperbole.
2. Pallbearer – Foundations Of Burden
The greatest poetry tends to spring from the simplest subject matter. Fire and ice. The west wind. Lightness and dark. It’s the latter dichotomy that’s woven through the ravishing gloom of Pallbearer’s second album. If you’ve ever wished that Black Sabbath had a more nuanced lyricist than Geezer Butler, Foundations Of Burden is probably gonna be your jam. “Darkened heart / Enlightened mind / Whole world apart / Remain entwined,” goes the chorus to the 10-minute opening salvo “Worlds Apart,” exploring the human struggle between instinct and intellect with an astonishing economy of words. A feeling of immensity begins here and never wavers, the result of producer Billy Anderson’s shamelessly decadent approach. Every sound is given to us in its richest, warmest tone. Guitar chords fall like velvet curtains. Brett Campbell sings in a gravel-free tenor that would make him a prime candidate for the Church of Satan’s choir director. I know this is technically doom metal, but it sounds more like bloom metal to me.
1. Azealia Banks – Broke With Expensive Taste
Broke With Expensive Taste deserves to be the next Yankee Hotel Foxtrot – the careening masterpiece that gets dropped by its shortsighted label and ends up selling like crazy once it hits the light of day. Azealia Banks’s long-shelved debut dares to enter a churning sea of genres and attitudes, and then calibrates our voyage so skillfully, it feels like we’re standing upright on a speedboat with no need for the rails. It cares not for the cycle of intense hype and curdling frustration that preceded it. It doesn’t even remember what an “Interscope Records” is. Banks is always in complete control, even when she needs to sing in perfectly inflected Spanish or summon the spirit of Annette Funicello. If you’ve been following her since “212” shook the earth three years ago, you’ll already know five of these tunes. Yet this particular familiarity does not breed contempt. Yes, we had only been given little pieces for so long, and we were tired of it. But here is the whole puzzle in all its glory. Here are those songs we love, reenergized by the context we were dreaming they’d get. This shit is better than Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. It’s better than anything that came out this year. Now let’s finally stop talking about it, and listen.
Honorable Mentions: Agalloch – The Serpent & The Sphere; Behemoth – The Satanist; Bloody Jay – #NAWFR; Leonard Cohen – Popular Problems; Flying Lotus – You’re Dead!; Freddie Gibbs & Madlib – Piñata; Future – Honest; Future Islands – Singles; Gangsta Boo & La Chat – Witch; Migos – Rich N**a Timeline; Dolly Parton – Blue Smoke; PeeWee Longway – The Blue M&M; Prince – Art Official Age; Sylvan Esso – Sylvan Esso; TV On The Radio – Seeds; Wu-Tang Clan – A Better Tomorrow; YG – My Krazy Life