Once a year I find it incredibly useful to stop and reflect upon time spent listening. It was a strange and wonderful year in music, rich with eccentric trends, unexpected developments, and long-awaited releases. And aside from putting this gargantuan mess of 2014 into faint perspective, compiling this list has revealed a lot about my personal listening habits, why I listen and how the listening works on me.
There were things I chose not to include—tracks like Lana Del Rey‘s sumptuous Ultraviolence outtake “Florida Kilos” or Ariana Grande‘s collaborative pop beast “Love Me Harder,” James Vincent McMorrow‘s decadent and devastating sophomore LP, the nascent and nebulous output from siblings Jaden and Willow Smith‘s, the new Cloud Nothings record—some rationally repudiated and some otherwise. I’ve decided to treat this all less like a dense recommendation tailored to my own tastes and more like an expansive platform for discovery.
To maximize the amount of music shared, I did my best to refrain from mentioning an artist twice (the exception being Hiatus Kaiyote, because duh). I played devil’s advocate with the “Top 10 Albums Not Available on Spotify” list, simply because when an album release does not make it to Spotify it’s inconvenient and frustrating but also kind of exciting. For the “15 Best Kept Secrets” list I ranked some of the year’s most underrated and overlooked releases; “Top 20 Tracks” isn’t completely arbitrary, but by no means is it a reliable indicator of my favorite songs from 2014. Think of this all as a sonic highlight reel, a brief trailer to the music of my mind.
Top 8 Albums Not Available on Spotify
1. Theo Parrish – American Intelligence [Sound Signature]
The legendary Detroit-based electronic musician and producer Theo Parrish is commanding, thoughtful and dutifully introspective on this, his polished and woozy sixth studio release. Tracks are lengthy and determined throughout, each subsequent number a stealthy and slow-moving tour de force. Patience is key. The groove tapers out and expounds, often senselessly and transgressively. This is a gorgeous release, rich, tenacious and gloriously non-traditional for an electronic record, channeling the likes of LCD Soundsystem on “I Enjoy Watching You (feat. Sass & Ruby).”
[Highlights: “Make No War,” “Fallen Funk”]
2. A$AP Ferg – Ferg Forever [ASAP Worldwide/ Polo Grounds/ RCA]
The fresh, fucked-up fun of A$AP Ferg‘s debut mixtape Trap Lord is streamlined, primped and matured on Ferg Forever, the Harlem-based rapper’s second release of 2014. Ferg wreaks absolute havoc over opener “Perfume” with rapid turns of a silver tongue. Production varies throughout, from the propulsive and panicked beatwork of Very Rare and DRAM to the harrowing bombshell rhythms and spaced-out future funk of Stelios Phili. Ferg Forver is bursting from the seams with impressive guest spots, even with A$AP Rocky absent, the likes of MIA, Twista, SZA, Tinashe and the fierce up-and-coming rapper-producer Crystal Caines beefing up this effort in a virtuosic range of voices and flows. He’s serious and solemn on “Commitment Issues,” “Talk It,” and “Uncle,” but inverts the mood on “Weaves,” “JA Rule” and “NV,” revealing his deranged but endearing sense of humor. Collectively, Ferg Forever was one of the most unusual and bewildering hip-hop releases of the year.
[Highlights: “Real Thing (feat. SZA),” “Dope Walk,” “Fergsomnia (feat. Twista)”]
3. Andy Stott – Faith In Strangers [Modern Love]
Electronic producer Andy Stott uses found sounds, field recordings, and the ghostly glint of frequent vocal collaborator Alison Skidmore to round off this hollow, harrowing but totally immersive album. Addled and agitated by the industrial pangs of metropolitan living, this record delves darkly into a strobe-lit, sweaty warehouse, bringing the nightclub straight to your earholes.
[Highlights: “Damage,” “Violence”]
4. Quincy Vidal – Utopia|LDZ [Self-released]
In the tradition of Outkast, the Brooklyn hip-hop duo Quincy Vidal are a double-edged sword, one part tenacious and sexy female MC (Le’Asha Julius) and one part soul-stricken rapper (CE)—and they spit just as well as they can croon. The group’s third LP, an expansive 23-track double album, dedicates each half to a member. The two never appear on a track together, but the synchronocity of their shared aesthetic prevails. Utopia|LDZ is sensual and confident, nuanced with dynamic currents of sauntering neo-soul. Download the double album [here].
[Highlights: “Who Knows (feat. Gabriel Garzon-Montano),” “Accidents (feat. Niambi)”]
5. Night Lovell – Concept Vague [Self-Released]
Night Lovell‘s first release, the fifteen-track mixtape Concept Vague, is icy and irksome, heady and trepidatious, but seems to reject any notions of self-seriousness (see track four, “Sometimes Not Serious”). His gravely, ghoulish flow is expertly tailored to all the sparse, monochrome beatwork throughout, which makes sense because he contributes production on standout tracks like “Live Television,” “Off Air,” “Trees of the Valley” and mixtape closer “Dark Light.” Elsewhere, Bine, Falco, Kid Indigo, Oshi and Fifty Grand offer up off-kilter amalgamations of trap, trip-hop and grime to beef up this impressive debut. Lovell’s expressions are flat and steely but cool and contained, thick and consistent like molasses, and their delivery is especially well pronounced on abrasive bass-heavy bangers “Beneath” and “Forget About Me.” This mixtape leaves me spellbound, a word I can’t help but recycle from the strange and seemingly irrelevant “James Cameron Took My Bitch (Interlude).” Night Lovell‘s lyrics might not be exceptional but his unshakable confidence more than makes up for it, and collectively Concept Vague materializes as something not quite so vague: It’s leery and adventurous and fresh, apt to infiltrate and occupy your head for the 45 minutes of its duration.
[Highlights: “The Renegade Never Dies,” “Concept Nothing,” “Live Television”]
6. YUGEN – Save The Sunlight [Self-Released]
Soaked to the gills in salient, sun-stroked soul, the LP from New Orleans-based live hip-hop group YUGEN is a gorgeous, ferociously feel-good debut. Distinguished by their raucous penchant for violent, improvisatory breakdowns and their eloquent, silky smooth MC, YUGEN channel an unfamiliar and exciting tributary of jazz, hip-hop and R&B. Adorned with subtle inflections of ethereal electronic production and bolstered their collectively virtuosic instrumentation, Save The Sunlight is a stark, celestial release of exceptional vibes.
[Highlights: “Reservations,” “Lost And Found,” “SingleCell (feat. Abby Diamond)”]
7. Death Grips – Niggas On The Moon [Harvest]
Billed as the first instillation of double album The Powers That B, Niggas On The Moon is Death Grips‘ most syncretic and pop-sensible release to date. Heavily featuring spliced and skewered vocal samples from pop provocateur Björk, this record—the last before the dynamic duo announced the band was no more—sounds hyper-stimulated, harrowing and (in their glorious tradition of flippant and ferocious releases) absolutely unapologetic, familiar footwork rhythms wrought by a sly sneak attack of PCP. There’s less growling and howling, more wispy, inside-voice poetic intensity filling up this tremulous and perpetually perturbed album. It’s the most effective and compelling iteration of Death Grips yet.
[Highlights: “Up My Sleeves,” “Billy Not Really,” “Have A Sad Cum”]
8. Millie & Andrea – Drop The Vowels [Modern Love]
Miles Whittaker and Andy Stott make up the collaborative project Millie & Andrea who, after releasing a series of singles together from 2008 to 2010, dropped their first album together this year. Inspired the supersonic and surging themes of late 90s UK drum and bass and early aughts jungle music, Drop The Vowels is adrenaline-fueled and fearless, hardly dance music for the faint of heart.
[Highlights: “GIF RIFF,” “Corrosive,” “Spectral Source,” “Back Down”]
Top 25 Albums of 2014
1. Arca – Xen [Mute]
Xen is an amorphous sprawl of feverish instrumentals that transfigure between antagonistic and serene, truculent and tender, the pop-sensible and the avant-garde. It’s not an easy listen. And although challenging, this record is one of the year’s most rewarding musical artifacts. Look to the disorderly recklessness of “Bullet Chained” for the most satisfying release of carefully curated chaos. Peer into title track “Xen” for some of the most violent and sensational beat constructions on the album. But elsewhere, Arca settles on a internalized despondency that’s wary, vulnerable and deadly serious–most effectively pronounced on album closer “Promise,” as hopelessly unresolved as it is spiritually illuminating.
[Highlights: “Thievery,” “Family Violence,” “Fish”]
2. D’Angelo and the Vanguard – Black Messiah [RCA]
Artistically bewildering, topically insurgent and subversively hilarious, Black Messiah does much to satisfy the fourteen-year wait for D’Angelo‘s third LP. Mixed and mastered just weeks before its impulsive release (motivated by the failure of a grand jury to indict police officers in New York City and Ferguson, Missouri for the death of young black men), this twelve-track album surges and spews with the makings of a classic. Remnants of Marvin Gaye, James Brown, and Sly Stone are laid bare throughout, but D’Angelo triumphantly navigates a beautiful middle ground between the late-greats and the craggy, rollicking uproar of something strange and new. The record starts bold and brash on tracks like “1000 Deaths,” a dark brand of deranged, apocalyptic-fearing soul. The following track “The Charade” has D’Angelo wailing, “All we wanted was a chance to talk/ ‘Stead we only got outlined in chalk.” If Voodoo was about infiltrating the essence of another body through love, Black Messiah infiltrates the broader consciousness of a terrorized nation, where Black minds and Black bodies are disregarded and devalued. But the record is not without it’s lighter moments, like the wonked-out whimsy of “Sugah Daddy” (“I hit it so I made the pussy fart/ She said it’s talkin’ to ya, talkin’ to ya Daddy”) or the freewheeling frolic of “Back to the Future (Part I)” (“So if you’re wondering about the shape I’m in/ I hope it ain’t my abdomen that you’re referring to”). Black Messiah is terrible, terrific and touching.
[Highlights: “Till It’s Done (Tutu),” “Ain’t That Easy,” “Back to the Future (Part I)”]
3. Taylor McFerrin – Early Riser [Brainfeeder]
Taylor McFerrin spent the better part of the last fourteen years in New York City, playing solo gigs and three-piece sets with his old band RAHJ, honing his incredible breadth of musical talent, waiting ardently for his big break. The DJ, producer, beatboxer, vocalist and electronic musician Taylor McFerrin had the ability, and initial intentions, to produce every song, play every instrument and lay down every vocal on the album himself. But such was not the way this album manifested. Instead, Taylor McFerrin and his tedious efforts on Early Riser yielded spectacular guest performances from Nai Palm of Hiatus Kaiyote, RYAT, Robert Glasper, Thundercat, Emily King and his father, the beloved Bobby McFerrin. Even with this star-studded roster, though, McFerrin maintains a sense of modesty and discipline. Some of his most breathtaking tracks are those exclusively performed by himself, like the celestial crescendo of opener “Postpartum” and the lax, languid breakbeats of “Florasia,” where he provides spare but concisely delivered vocals. Early Riser is poignant, meditative and exhilarating—a defiant leap ahead in electronic music.
[Highlights: “Postpartum,” “The Antidote,” “PLS DNT LISTEN”]
4. FKA twigs – LP1 [Young Turks]
LP1 is a convoluted and complex statement about the internal motivations we experience when confronted with lawless desire. Tahliah Barnett introduces her voice on opener “Preface” among repeated hymnal chants of “I love another, and thus I hate myself.” The caustic delirium persists throughout the ten tracks, tender and translucent on “Lights On” and pedantic and volatile on “Numbers.” FKA twigs’ music is committed to a sense of hyper-methodical, futuristic transience, it still feels a bit raw and rough-around-the-edges. As a female provocateur, Twigs employs the same kind of sexually augmented identifiers that expound in more prolific artists like Beyoncé or Rihanna. In direct contrast, though, Barnett positions herself as pop’s alien antihero, actively delineating from aural and visual touch points that manifest in the pervasive culture. She is a sexual antagonist, formidable and sly, quick to change roles or skewer our orientation, imploring us to look harder, longer and with more conviction than previously exercised. Barnett offers us something no else can, something no one else dares to, and that’s what excites me so much about this album.
[Highlights: “Lights On,” “Give Up,” “Numbers”]
5. BADBADNOTGOOD – III [Innovative Leisure]
Skilled and sophisticated beyond their years, the Canadian jazz-fusion trio BADBADNOTGOOD dropped their first official LP following their mixtapes I and II. Absent of covers or guest spots, save for the virtuosic chops of Leland Whitty on the tenor sax, III is a densely arranged and singular vision of ethereal hip-hop-informed instrumentals transfigured as jazz tunes. In tandem with the album’s obscure, shadow-concealed artwork, this record’s musical atmosphere is incredible aware of the space it creates—one of few discernible shapes and colors, a looming stretch of midnight sky.The record is tail-ended with “Since You Asked Kindly” and “CS60,” two tracks that apply boisterous electronic production to the seething swirl of analog instrumentation. Already hinting at their next artistic evolution.
[Highlights: “Eyes Closed,” “Kaleidoscope,” “Triangle”]
6. Ava Luna – Electric Balloon [Western Vinyl]
Electric Balloon acquaints its listener with an erosive, albeit expertly arranged, album opener: “Daydream” is indecisive in its laboring efforts to establish a sustaining groove. When it’s finally secured, the rhythm responds in frenzied and exuberant squawks and squeals; whether the trio of vocalists are enamored or enraged by its schizoid misgivings, though, is unclear. Probably both. A befuddling combination of delirious soul and springy post-punk, Ava Luna are forceful in their attempts to put you off, but in the same fell swoop they’re turning you on. Less than three songs in and you might be convinced: This is a new kind of art rock. Miscellaneous, cartoonish and conceptually unhinged, it ain’t the shit that’s mounted on walls or suffocated in shiny glass casings, and it’s certainly not accompanied with any neat, well packaged descriptors. This is art rock you can touch and smell and, most importantly, listen to without feeling completely alienated. The kind of art rock that might fall apart in your hands if it’s handled without care. It makes Electric Balloon all the more invaluable, a glaring articulation of musical and extramusical otherness.
[Highlights: “Genesee,” “PRPL,” “Hold U”]
7. Adult Jazz – Gist Is [Spare Thought]
On the opening track from Gist Is, the debut album by the Leeds-based foursome Adult Jazz, sounds and colors hang limpid and wary midair. Suspended by one simple chord, one gloriously indefinite drone, “Hum” finally succumbs to the tides in its third minute, relinquishing all the hypertensive strain and expounding toward a startling new paradigm. Six minutes in and elegiac brass lines syncopate the pedantic vocal melodies of Harry Burgess which fill the space as a very emphatic, well-projected whisper. Self-released by the group’s own label Spare Thought (also a lyric fixated upon in “Hum”), the album is sonically provocative and thoroughly arresting in its full-figured, ambitious attempts to subvert and sabotage familiar indie rock tropes. Closing tracks “Be A Girl” and “Bonedigger,” serve to subtly unwind the propulsive energy of Gist Is. The former sounds like a hackneyed, upended hymnal, jarring in its contented mannerisms and percussive anomalies. The latter is tonally pastoral and passive; the sequestered brass section elicits a calm, exhaustive resolution–one that doesn’t necessarily rectify the madness isolated throughout these transformative 51 minutes. But it certainly works to perpetuate the cycle, to instigate another revolution back to the began, in hopes of finding some newfangled meaning behind all that havocked hullabaloo.
[Highlights: “Idiot Mantra,” “Hum,” “Springful”]
8. Mr Twin Sister – Mr Twin Sister [Twin Group]
Formerly known as Twin Sister, the Long Island-based experimental-pop group made 2014 their bitch in the most delicate and demure way possible. The fuzzy drum machines 2011’s In Heaven vaguely hinted at the major artistic transformation they would eventually embrace: the cohesive, psychedelic lull of Mr Twin Sisters’ strange and sauntering tropical house-funk. For all purposes, this is a dance record, obscured and estranged by lush woodwind jazz flourishes, elegiac string arrangements and kaleidoscopic techno. Frontwoman Andrea Estella reinforces their bold metamorphosis, her vocals more assured and seditious than ever before. When she sings “I am a woman but inside I’m a man/ And I want to be as gay as I can,” on the buoyant electro-funk banger “Out of the Dark,” it sounds absolutely rejoiceful and splendid.
[Highlights: “Blush,” “Crime Scene,” “In The House of Yes”]
9. Sharon Van Etten – Are We There [Jajaguwar]
There’s always been something especially lurid and devastating about Sharon Van Etten‘s glaring tenor, the way her voice seems to catch and hold as a tight knot at the base of your throat. Unlike previous efforts, though, Van Etten was the sole producer of her fourth album Are We There and spends the record confronting herself from every conceivable angle, . The album’s focal point, “Your Love Is Killing Me,” commences with a distorted, seemingly airless drum line that fills the space like zero gravity; the chorus is heartbreaking and real: “Break my legs so I won’t walk to you/ Cut my tongue so I can’t talk to you/ Burn my skin so I can’t feel you/ Stab my eyes so I can’t see.” Are We There is a record dense with harrowing emotions, a beautiful statement on the pain and plights of a love fully realized and fully acknowledged.
[Highlights: “Taking Chances,” “Nothing Will Change,” “Tarifa”]
10. Azealia Banks – Broke With Expensive Taste [Azealia Banks/ Prospect Park]
Album opener “Idle Delilah” embodies all the things that initially attracted me to Azealia Banks: She’s a left-field pop-rap provocateur absolutely defined by her ceaseless ferocity and unabashed eccentricity. On BWET, Banks evokes a kind of listening that’s temporal, challenging and provocative, utterly insistent upon keeping the listener stymied and envisaged, rearing upwards and on in perpetual anticipation for the next big drop.
[Highlights: “Miss Camaraderie,” “Luxury,” “Desperado”]
11. Flying Lotus – You’re Dead! [Warp]
What started as a simple concept for a jazz record expounded and evolved as the lush and terrifying fifth Flying Lotus album You’re Dead! With 2012’s prolific Until The Quiet Comes in hindsight, this record veers slightly mainstream (courtesy of Snoop Dogg and Kendrick Lamar collaborations) but remains steadfast to Stephen Ellison’s ever-faithful penchant for experimentalism. The nineteen tracks are vehement and unexpected, varying in disparate degrees of intensity and intricacy. The record starts hard and fast with “Theme,” like a fiery comet hurtling through the violent infinity of cyberspace, and effectively dissolves into the hauntingly beautiful centerfold cuts “Coronus, The Terminator” and “Siren Song.” Closer “The Protest,” though, is unfailingly the track I cling to most. An angelic chorus sings “We will live on forever and ever,” over an unreeled loop of celestial synthlines and other astral anomalies—ushering in the calm.
[Highlights: “Turtles,” “Never Catch Me (feat. Kendrick Lamar)”]
12. St. Vincent – St. Vincent [Loma Vista/ Republic/ Universal]
Surely drawing inspiration from collaborator David Byrne to devise her grey-haired, extraterrestrial alter-ego, St. Vincent is vital for all the same reasons Fear of Music and Remain in Light are paramount Talking Heads records. The album finds Annie Clark directly confronting her own paranoia, reveling in the stark, unquantifiable madness that plagues our digital-age minds. It’s stylistically audacious: sci-fi savvy, hip-hop sensible, blues-soaked and P-Funk revering. And, despite Clark’s gracious media presence, the music on this album speaks entirely for itself. “People turn the TV on/ It looks just like a window,” Annie Clark lulls on “Digital Witness.” Open your eyes to listen closer. Experiencing these songs for the first, or twelfth, time is like marijuana to your psychedelics, Molotov to your cocktail, an unsuspecting mouthful of uncooked garlic. The consequence is dynamic, maybe a little troubling, but well worth it.
[Hightlights: “Prince Johnny,” “Rattlesnake,” “I Prefer Your Love”]
13. Warpaint – Warpaint [Rough Trade]
The Los Angeles-based female foursome Warpaint are peculiar, endlessly interesting and their sophomore, self-titled album is a supernatural exploration of sound and space. Their instruments careen and collide as gracefully as their voices, which rise above the halogen-lit haze as not four, but one mosaicked melisma. They sound hypnotic (“Love Is To Die”), mystical (“Go In”), even threatening (“Feeling Alright”), like a gaggle of sirens luring in the unsuspecting listener. Throughout Warpaint, revitalized themes of new wave and post-punk rub against the cool, contained groove of hip-hop sensible drum cadences. The result is something alluring and provocative.
[Highlights: “Biggy,” “Disco//very,” “Son”]
14. Ratking – So It Goes [HXC/ XL]
New York-based Ratking are fearless and pristine, and their sophomore effort, So It Goes, signifies the next evolution of hip-hop. Wiki and Hak are desperate to articulate their message, rapping about awakening the inner consciousness, creating materials of substance that might satiate a disregarded hunger for art. Their music is combative and ridiculing, a disarming narrative of life in New York City as a young MC, and their album boasts virtuosic production entirely from Sporting Life.
[Highlights: “Puerto Rican Judo (feat. Wavy Spice),” “Snow Beach,” “So Sick Stories (feat. King Krule)”]
15. The War On Drugs – Lost In The Dream [Secretly Canadian]
The War On Drugs‘ most recent album was unprecedented to say the least, a spirit sweeping, drum machine-wielding expanse of fleeting guitar lines and purple haze. The electronic production on Lost In The Dream very well could been kitschy and wrong, but TWOD find a careful medium between 80s inspired themes and the band’s own progressive aesthetic. The tracks are long and rambling, like a flat stretch of highway pointing toward the horizon. Kurt Vile sounds majestically aged on these songs, like Van Morrison or Bob Dylan at their most melodic and capable moments.
[Highlights: “An Ocean Between Waves,” “Disappearing,” Under The Pressure”]
16. Kindness – Otherness [Female Energy/ Mom + Pop]
This formidable, guest-heavy sophomore album by Adam Brainbridge’s solo project Kindness, is a swift, unabashed departure from the spare indietronica of World, You Need A Change Of Mind. Here, throughout ten gorgeous tracks laden with billowy, future-flinging jazz and off-kilter, early-90s-inspired hip-hop productions, Kindness makes a strong gesture at R&B and comes away with something much more peculiar and, ultimately, groundbreaking.
[Highlights: “With You (feat. Kelela),” “World Restart (feat. Kelela & Ade)”]
17. Clark – Clark [Warp]
A rampant and non-stop force of evanescent, roiling energies, electronic solo artist Clark‘s self-titled studio album is a hellish and sexy collage of propulsive dance music. Serrated and schizophrenic compositions unfurl and spill into one another like the best DJ set you’ve never seen. It’s vicious, virtuosic and utterly consuming.
[Highlights: “Winter Linn,” “There’s A Distance In You”]
18. Little Dragon – Nabuma Rubberband [Seven Four Entertainment/ Republic]
Never before have Little Dragon sounded so huge, so thunderous and booming. Engaging with late-1970s funk and soul releases of Prince and Janet Jackson for unlikely fodder, Nabuma Rubberband steps outside the soul-savvy trip hop of the Swedish groups first three albums and takes a defiant turn towards EDM. Lead single “Klapp Klapp” is unwieldy and clamorous as an inner city traffic jam, and the cosmic chaos of “Only One” is just as unforgivingly prodigious. The bass is programmed up in the mix, but their strangeness is played down—and it makes for a simple, straightforward variant of Little Dragon that’s no less exciting.
[Highlights: “Nabuma Rubberband,” “Killing Me,” “Let Go”]
19. The Shaolin Afronauts – Follow The Path [Freestyle]
The Shaolin Afronauts are an Adelaide-based instrumental ensemble, originally comprised of twelve talented brass, woodwind and percussion musicians. The band is now down to eight members, but the release of this year’s colossal double album Follow The Path infinitely refined their sound. The 21-track album is worldly medley of disparate musical influence—from the Ghanian highlife of “Boogie Back to Accra” to the Ethiopian, Eastern-modal jazz of “Abyssinian Suite Pt. 2.” Each instrumental track delves one step further into this band’s inspired and historically informed sound, drawing from the afrobeat and soul sensibilities of acts likes Mandrill, Osibisa, Sun Ra and Fela Kuti.
[Highlights: “Baie de Sangareya,” “At The Shrine,” “Interstellar Griot Pt. 2”
20. Parquet Courts / Parkay Quarts – Sunbathing Animals / Content Nausea [What’s Your Rupture? / Mom and Pop]
Few bands lived up to the prestige, the much-deserved hype surrounding this Brooklyn-based band, who initially surged onto the underground music scene with the release of 2013’s Light Up Gold. This year saw the release of two individual LPs from the group. The chugging guitars and spiritually incensed kick drums of Sunbathing Animals were passionate and without fault (“Bodies Made Of” is gross but great; “Ramona” is weird but funny), and their follow-up (credited to the band’s zany alter-ego Parkay Quarts) is a feat in its own right. Content Nausea is angrier, wrought with complexity—from the campy sax spotlight on “Pretty Machines” to the industrialized electronics of “Psycho Structures,” “Kevlar Walls” and “No Concept.” There’s something authentically surefire about Parquet Courts. It’s physically invigorating, this music, as hilarious as it is impossibly strange.
[Highlights: “Ramona,” “Sunbathing Animals,” “Content Nausea,” “The Map”]
21. Naomi Punk – Television Man [Captured Tracks]
The Olympia, Washington-based trio Naomi Punk‘s sophomore LP Television Man is 36 minutes of incensed, relentlessly brooding guitar music. Reeling from 2012’s quasi-bewitched debut The Feeling, comparably pallid and decidedly weird-for-the-sake-of-being-weird, the album settles upon a more homage-paying iteration of Northwestern punk music. Reverences suits them well. Or maybe what we perceive as a not-so-subtle nod to punk legends like Beat Happening, Television and even Nirvana is mistaken for sheer minimalistic determination, simple impassioned ideas exercised with the least amount of effort possible. The vaulting ten-track progression–despite often sounding like indecipherable variations on an unruly and calamitous theme–is uninhibited, happy to be grieving, excited to be young and stupid.
[Highlights: “Song Factory,” “Rodeo Trash Pit”]
22. Hundred Waters – The Moon Rang Like A Bell [OWSLA]
For their debut self-titled, the experimental electronic quartet Hundred Waters, originally from Gainesville, Florida, the album’s tracks were conceived away from a live setting, and as a result the group had a difficult time translating their sound from the record to the stage. The album attracted the attention of Skrillex and his Los Angeles-based OWSLA label, effectively transplanting and transforming this group of musicians, invigorating them with newfound creative impulses for their gorgeous and captivating follow-up The Moon Rang Like A Bell. The new record’s songs were written to be played live, which explains the organic synchronicity of this album, the way all the separate parts make strange and unexpected turns but always return to their origin. When I saw them live at this year’s Pitchfork Festival in Chicago, the fidelity of their studio sound was remarkable. Frontwoman Nicole Miglis leads the sounds but her ghoulishly enchanting vocals don’t carry the record so much as react and respond to the exotic electronic atmospheres constructed in each song.
[Highlights: “Murmurs,” “Down From The Rafters,” “[Animal]”]
23. HOMESHAKE – In the Shower [Sinderlyn]
Peter Segar makes simple yet strange music, a woozy kind of funk-fueled garage rock, the likes of which unseen since slap-back Berlin-based dance project The Whitest Boy Alive. He first introduced himself as Mac DeMarco‘s capable and confident guitarist, but Homeshake‘s debut LP In The Shower strays far from DeMarco’s singular and sunny-eyed jangle pop. In The Shower is vast, densely layered and conceptually convoluted. The drunk and disorderly lead single “Making A Fool of You” is leagues away from the radiant, technicolor whirl of “Slow.” Segar’s shaky, unsteady vocals hardly rise above the craggy drone of drums and wobbly guitar lines, but he sounds comfy in the murky mix, exactly where he’s supposed to be.
[Highlights: “Michael,” “Slow,” “The Shower Scene”]
24. Takuya Kuroda – Rising Son [Blue Note]
Japanese-born trumpeter Takuya Kuroda is more than capable as songwriter and bandleader on this, his premiere release on the famed jazz label Blue Note. He practices remarkable ease on the eight-track album Rising Son and shows remarkable aptitude for hard bop, played down and channeled as an ambling kind of vamped-out neo-soul. The record is completely instrumental, save for an astoundingly reverent cover of the seminal Roy Ayers single “Everybody Loves The Sunshine,” that meanders and shifts for nearly ten minutes; R&B vocalist Jose James delivers a whopping but modest vocal performance. This music has such synergy, such cohesive flow, it sounds as if it was conceived in one swift motion, one expansive and uninterrupted thought that eventually materialized as a fully formed release. It’s a sublime trip.
[Highlights: “Afro Blues,” “Rising Son,” “Mala”]
25. The Budos Band – Burnt Offering [Daptone]
Diverging from the feel-good, horn driven afro-soul of their first three albums, Staten Island’s groove rocking twelve-piece The Budos Band take a dark turn on Burnt Offering. Inspired by the malevolent motifs of vintage metal acts like Black Sabbath and Pentagram, these tracks sound ritualistic, grittier and more heavy-handed than ever before. From opener “Into the Fog” to album centerfold “Black Hills,” this brooding, relentlessly funky record, in its idiosyncratic synthesis of disparate musical ideas, does something very brave and very bold.
[Highlights: “Aphasia,” “Black Hills,” “Turn and Burn”]
Top 10 EPs of 2014
1. Nick Hakim – Where Will We Go Pt. 1 & 2 [Earseed]
Originally conceived as an album, the Brooklyn-based soul singer-songwriter Nick Hakim ultimately self-released Where Will We Go as EPs in two separate parts. The nine cumulative tracks retain a raw, underproduced sensibility that harkens back the long, sleepless and caffeinated nights Hakim spent recording this project. His wealth of talents, as a vocalist, producer and songwriter, are poignant and plainspoken, bearing onto ears like a deer in headlights. The unusual spaces Hakim creates are stark, surreal and haunted; they linger with you. This music is a throughway, a portal to a young man’s inner turmoil—singing his heart out on the brink of loneliness.
[Highlights: “Cold,” “I Don’t Know”]
2. Hiatus Kaiyote – By Fire [Sony]
The Melbourne, Australia-based future soul quartet Hiatus Kaiyote, proud purveyors of “Multi-Dimensional, Polyrhythmic Gangster Shit,” are constantly evolving, making new and unanticipated developments in their progressive, genre-demolishing music. Their new EP By Fire serves as a brief intermission between 2012’s ridiculously cool Tawk Tomahawk and 2015’s long-awaited Choose Your Weapon. The three-track EP is a brief but concise statement in the band’s next evolution—best articulated at the third minute of closing number “Molasses,” which surges in climactic ecstasy among contrapuntal rhythmic flourishes and an angelic medley bellows and caws. The future is exciting and bright for this exceptional band.
3. Andrew Ashong – Andrew Ashong [Which Way / Beggars]
The British-Ghanian singer-songwriter initially started his music career at 16, collecting records and DJing in his South London community. On his first release in 2012, he enlisted the help of dance producer Theo Parrish to round off the insanely funk Flowers. For his self-titled follow-up EP Andrew Ashong wrote and produced the entire three-track release, settling on a smoother, slower kind of psychedelic soul. Andrew Ashong is calm and contained, serene and sublime, brimming with the makings of a truly talented artist.
[Highlight: “Love The Way”]
4. Woo Park – Smokes [Self-Released]
Consider this a formal introduction to the Chicago sextet’s fresh, free-flowing, future-flinging vibes: a 29-minute, 9-track assortment of mosaicked melodies and roiling rhythms. They’ve got it. That nearly indescribable energy that surges and sprawls out of truly great music: magic. It’s all over Smokes, certainly palpable in the astral ambience of opening track “Space Gangster.” The 66-second instrumental track is a slow-moving tide of aqueous guitar riffs and psychotropic synth lines, while frontwoman Emily Nichols whines and wails lightyears away. Woo Park, at full force, are exhilarating, utterly enthralling, but they’re all too liable to double back and slip into a half-time, languid breakdown, like the evanescent energies that propel “Tiny Straw” back and forth, from supersonic psychedelic intensity to a slow, sensual release.
[Highlights: “Space Gangster,” “Boom Bap,” “Tiny Straws”]
5. Tizrah – No Romance [Greco-Roman]
Kinetic soul and 32-bit drum and bass loops fill up this spare, psychotropic five-track EP, the follow-up to last year’s I’m Not Dancing. Tizrah‘s sinewy vocals work exceptionally well with producer Micachu‘s unique beatwork, like the arpeggiated wind chime synths on “No Romance” or the percolated white noise of “Style.” This EP leans low and packs a powerful punch.
[Highlight: “No Romance”]
6. Buscabulla – Kitsuné: Buscabulla [Kitsuné]
The collaborative musical endeavor of Brooklyn-based Puerto Rican designer Raquel Berr and Luis Alfredo Del Valle, Buscabulla (or “troublemaker”) is simmering, Spanish-language Afro-Caribbean psych-rock, haphazardly arranged but deft. The anticipatory sizzle of “Temporal,” where the crackles and pops of a vinyl sampled drum break are preserved and looped in the mix, is a clear standout, along with the South American psychedelia of “Sono.” Co-produced by Dev Hynes, Kitsuné: Buscabulla borrows from the rife R&B and dilapidated cool of his project Blood Orange and collaborator Kindness, but Buscabulla tactic proves much more tactile.
7. The Breathing Effect – The Breathing Effect [Alpha Pup]
Throughout five tracks, the Brooklyn-based experimental jazz ensemble sync into a swirling psychoactive groove that never lets up, hardly offering a moment’s peace. Conceived from the minds of music students Eli Goss and Harry Terrell, The Breathing Effect melding modern electronic production techniques with a glossy late 60s sheen. Look to the instrumental breakbeat jazz of BADBADNOTGOOD for their most immediate and modern source of influence, but on the second and fifth tracks (“Splatter Art” and “Losing My Mind) when Goss lends his sonorous yelping to the throng of shuffling drums and oddly arranged beeps and bloops, it sounds like the avant-garde haze of Grizzly Bear‘s preemptory college side project Department of Eagles.
[Highlight: “Losing My Mind”]
8. DJ Rashad – We On 1 [Southern Belle]
On the high end, synths cry crisp and clean, but on the low end the bass pulsates and plods, a pedantic jackhammering of body-inhabiting vibrations: This is footwork. 2014 saw the death of DJ Rashad, a leading figure of the exuberant footwork scene local to Chicago, but his music lives on through collaborators DJ Spinn, DJ Manny and Gant-Man, the crews that danced to his dark-minded, supersonic soul and the audiences that listened. This four-track posthumous EP kicks off with “We On 1,” DJ Rashad’s standout, solo effort on the release. It’s a surprisingly vacant number, exercising a kind of creative restraint that allow his carefully constructed bass structures and psychotically recapitulated samples to truly flourish.
[Highlights: “Do It Again,” “Come On Girl”]
9. Baths – Ocean Death [anticon]
Last year, Will Wiesenfeld’s solo project Baths released Obsidian, where the record’s narrative protagonist, and its creator, nearly evades the cold clutches of death and comes away from the experience stony and haunted. It was an audacious musical statement, sometimes plagued with disparaging dark-minded motifs, but beautiful nonetheless—a necessary step in his artistic growth. The Ocean Death EP concentrates all that malevolent, colorless energy and applies it gracefully and with absolute poise throughout five stunning tracks. First in a full throttle assault on the opening title track, a relentless volley of squelching bass and sinuous white noise, and then subverted and submissive on the subsequent four tracks.
10. Nao – So Good [Little Tokyo]
Salacious electro-funk is channeled through the essence of London-based R&B singer Nao, who recruits supplementary vocals and production from Jai Paul‘s little brother A.K. Paul and the American future-thinking R&B duo Abhi//Dijon. This music is simple and straightforward fun, expertly engineered to make you move, to make you feel good.
[Highlights: “Good Girl,” “Adore You (feat. Abhi//Dijon)”]
Top 15 Tracks of 2014
1. Gabriel Garzón-Montano – “Pour Maman”
Bishouné: Alma de Huila was formally dedicated to the Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter’s Columbian father and French mother, and this darkly dreaming, soul-crunching shakedown is Gabriel Garzón-Montano‘s grand opus.
2. Jamie xx – “Sleep Sound”
Fleet-footed and aqueous, this sedated house banger (featuring uncredited vocals by Alicia Keys) is understated and unshakeably groovy.
3. Mikael Seifu – “Tuff Ruff”
Ethiopian producer Mikael Seifu marries two incredibly different worlds on this ethereal, devastating beautiful dance track—the product is stark and nearly indescribable.
4. Melody’s Echo Chamber – “Shirim”
Melody Prochet ditched Tame Impala‘s Kevin Parker (co-producer of her self-titled debut) on this teaser single for her unannounced follow-up, exercising little to no creative restraint within this raucous throng of distorted funk and psychedelic sheen.
5. Hiatus Kaiyote – “Molasses”
The closing track on this year’s three-track EP, “Molasses” cascades and flows like turbulent riverbed, a fiery future funk breakdown that’s anything but viscid or slow.
6. The Juan Maclean – “A Simple Design”
The sprawling, high-energy space disco of The Juan Maclean might be best articulated on “A Simple Design,” where angular beams and wobbly synthesizers motivate this ecstatic house beat.
7. Paul White – “Honey Cats”
The lead single from Shaker Notes is woozy and wicked, and Paul White‘s guttural, cheshire-grinning vocals sound like a malevolent spectre surreptitiously inviting death.
8. Mac DeMarco – “Chamber Of Reflection”
When the rhythm doubles down and dissolves into sparkling synth, garage-rock meets trap on the forlorn but ultra funky cut “Chamber of Reflection” from this year’s Salad Days.
9. altopalo – “Chagrinning”
The nearly six minutes that comprise the evanescent new single “Chagrinning,” are manic and attention-demanding. Brooklyn’s four-piece groove rock ensemble altopalo self-attribute their alluring and idiosyncratic musical predilections as “Difficult Listening,” and rightfully so. The disparate textures and sonic soundscapes explored on “Chagrinning,” waver from hyper-tensive future-soul, to enamored noise rock, to swaggering, soul-sensible funk, and they never settle for long.
10. Emily King – “Distance”
The New York-based vocalist Emily King, save for her incredible guest performance on Taylor McFerrin’s Early Riser, released one track this year, and it’s irrefutably her best; “Distance” is ascendant, raw with emotion and utterly swoon-worthy.
11. Iron Galaxy – “No Matter”
2014 was an incredible time for electronic music, but there’s something about the way this song slopes, the way it lulls and leans, that makes it one of the year’s most irresistible dance tracks.
12. Caribou – “Second Chance”
The clear standout track on Caribou‘s new record Our Love, “Second Chance” features uncredited vocals, and presumably production, from Jessy Lanza, a curb-stomping, key-changing mess of whirling R&B techno.
13. Warehouse – “Omission”
The premiere single for the recently founded Bayonet Records, “Omission” by Warehouse is a begrudging muck of raucous math rock melodies and harum scarum vocals—ugly but oh so satisfying.
14. Vic Mensa – “Wimmie Nah”
The brackish, whistle-toned crunk of Vic Mensa‘s dope-to-the-power-of-dope single is where the producer Kaytranada‘s undisputed dance sensibilities are incorporated seamlessly and distinctively with hip-hop.
15. Future Islands – “Seasons (Waiting On You) [BADBADNOTGOOD Reinterpretation]”
The shimmering synthesizers of Future Islands‘ “Seasons” are traded for percolating drums and feel-good faux string arrangements on the BADBADNOTGOOD interpretation of the track—and the change suits Samuel T. Herring, whose vocals sounds as gritty and huge as the late great James Brown.
2014’s Top 15 Best Kept Secrets
1. Viet Cong – “Cassette”
2. Vondelpark – Vondelife
3. Curtis Harding – “Heaven’s On The Other Side”
4. Ikebe Shakedown – Stone By Stone
5. JaJa Kisses – “PIMMS”
6. Dean Blunt – Black Metal
7. Floating Points – “Montparnasse”
9. Jerry Paper – Big Pop For Chameleon World
10. Bueno – “C-C-C-Convenient”
11. Khruangbin – The Infamous Bill
12. kirkis. – “mirror”
13. Deleted Scenes – Lithium Burn
14. Noname Gypsy – “Take You Back (feat. Akenya & Via Rosa)”
15. Live Footage – Doyers
Music for this release is unavailable to embed. Stream Doyers on the Live Footage SoundCloud page here.