2014 was a year of highs and lows. Sun Kil Moon released his greatest record but also his vile hatred for “beer commercial lead guitar shit”, FKA Twigs and a few old favourites appeared out of the woodwork to deliver some potentially classic albums, Future Islands released probably the greatest post-2010 pop song to date and Neil Young, Billy Corgan, Solange, Iggy Azaela/Azealia Banks and various others all featured somewhere on a scale ranging from somewhat miffed to incredibly pissed off (oh, and Radiohead are back in the studio!). But before the year ends it’s worth taking a minute to look back on those records that made 2014 a year to be remembered.
1. Swans – To Be Kind
Although this album is a beast of a listen, there is still not a lot left unsaid about this sprawling 2 hour masterpiece. Swans have crafted one of the grooviest and harshest records of the year that after repeat listens still manages to capture the ears and instil a hypnotic trance unto the listener. Songs’ structures and unconventional riffs relentlessly pound on, repeating and growing, adding more and more layers, always threatening to overwhelm but always under control. Gira and crew act as primal as ever but after 20 years, display a newfound togetherness, each members’ instruments interlocking and working off each other to create an explosively charged epic.
2. Sun Kil Moon – Benji
After a tumultuous year, one thing remains clear about Mark Kozelek: he is incredibly sad. Fortunately, the man has an output for his emotions under his current guise as Sun Kil Moon. His latest record plays like the diary of a solitary someone who feels a need to express himself but can’t quite do so publicly. Kozelek ponders and details his own life, past and present, weaving a tapestry littered with misfortune and often progressing to hard-hitting points that often lead the listener to a greater appreciation of their own life.
3. Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 2
Self-conscious, politically aware and downright hilarious, the unlikely duo of El-P and Killer Mike triumphantly return with a vastly improved record that packs incredible amounts of energy even without a large quantity of features. Run the Jewels show how hip-hop should sound and by doing so highlight the bloated nature of their industry. Sonically however, El-P’s production is as tight and eclectic as always but with the progression in lyricism, the pair attack with vitriol.
4. D’Angelo and the Vanguard – Black Messiah
You might be asking how a record not even two weeks old features on a list of the best records of the year, and to put it simply, it is because it sounds unlike anything else released since D’Angelo’s last album 14 years ago. Only Flying Lotus comes close to replicating the chaotically funky sound pioneered by the “Jesus of R&B”. D’Angelo and accompanying band The Vanguard manage to channel all their influences ranging from P-Funk to Prince into one cohesive whole that happily bounces around whilst dealing with themes such as the prevalent racism facing the modern world.
5. The War on Drugs – Lost in the Dream
As with most albums on this list, it was sadness and struggle that formulated Adam Granduciel’s latest record, but rather than the glum folk that Mark Kozelek chose as his method of catharsis, Granduciel went grander and looked towards his classic rock forebears. The War on Drugs create their own heartland rock, but give a modern update, applying synths and reverb aplenty. Consequently, there is a universality to the music here, with Granduciel’s contemplation of loss speaking to all.
6. Todd Terje – It’s Album Time
After years of casual single and EP releases, Todd Terje tackles full-length record production with that same casualness. Terje is unafraid to create background music, producing essentially artificial compositions that feel effortlessly organic. Some of these singles and EP tracks are found here but it is telling that Terje slots them in whilst keeping the record consistent and fluid.
7. FKA Twigs – LP1
FKA Twigs sounds like the future. In the best debut album in recent years, Twigs has created an entirely personal album that reflects the lives of many, desiring both pleasure and love portrayed through a constant melancholy. 2014’s fascination with sex as manifested in songs such as Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda” or Jennifer Lopez and Iggy Azalea’s “Booty” exists at a polar opposite to Dahlia Barnett’s intimate portrayal of her own need for physical connection, thus she has not only created the most forward thinking album of the year, but the sexiest too.
8. Brontide – Artery
Brontide are a quintessential band when explaining the power of sound without words. This threepiece math/post-rock outfit display interplay rivalled only by fellow math rockers Battles when it comes to tightly honed and perfectly locked album composition. Upon arrival at the end of the album after eight perfectly flowing tracks, the sound of birds create a calmness that almost forces a reflection upon the band’s densely packed sound.
9. Flying Lotus – You’re Dead!
Steven Ellison sure has progressed. Since Cosmogramma, FlyLo has been dealing with philosophical and existential themes through his frantic jazz-infused hip-hop; whether that be Earth’s place in the Universe, the concepts of dreaming or as with the aptly titled ‘You’re Dead!’, death itself. The verdict is still out over whether Ellison is suggesting a joyous afterlife awaiting us post-death or rather that he is celebrating life in the face of death. Either way, tracks like “Never Catch Me” featuring Kendrick Lamar or “The Boys Who Died In Their Sleep” reveal the brilliance of the emerging genre fusions in FlyLo’s work.
10. St. Vincent – St. Vincent
According to Annie Clark aka St. Vincent, her fourth album became her first self-titled release due in part to a comment from Miles Davis effectively saying that the hardest thing for an artist to do was to sound like themselves. Clark has admittedly achieved this by virtue of sounding nothing like any other rock artist producing music this century. Clark finally revelled in her eccentricity in her music and her stage shows, providing humour alongside her usual intelligent lyricism and provided a refreshing take on indie rock.
11. Ought – More Than Any Other Day
Under the crazed crooning of frontman Tim Beeler, Ought actively dabble with the quandaries of mundane life and realise that life is good, happiness should be felt by all and that “everything is going to be ok”. Post-punk and math rock never felt to awash with everyman attitude.
12. Mac DeMarco – Salad Days
The big question before the release of Mac DeMarco’s ‘Salad Days’ was how could he follow the excellence of his sophomore album ‘2’? The answer was found in an increase in production quality but a new question emerged. How could someone so goofy produce such sweet songs tinged with melancholy? His slacker personality originally sparked interest in his sound that has allowed him to create those songs which he desired, moving away from the silly to the personal.
13. Aphex Twin – Syro
After a long absence whereby the artist’s popularity grew exponentially, as with many others this years, Aphex Twin returned in 2014 with an album that pleased fans old and new alike. While Richard D. James came to epitomise the new leaps that electronic music made in the 90’s, his latest album is one that acts as a natural progression from his last. The record is intricate, seeming as if each bar is distinct and unrepeated and it is this that still makes James stand out from his contemporaries and imitators.
14. Caribou – Our Love
Dan Snaith’s latest nom de guerre Caribou provides a similar sound. Sophisticated and stylish electronics at odds with the current trends of digital minimalism. Electro-psychedelia may be the correct genre for Snaith’s current output but this fails to truly capture that maturity at the heart of his music. As a mathematics PhD and a (no doubt awesome) father, his music doesn’t aim for that childish appeal that continues to garner EDM obscene amounts of money, but aims for the brain as well as the feet.
15. BadBadNotGood – III
The current renaissance in jazz and its ever-growing role in hip-hop is a movement that is spearheaded by BadBadNotGood. A trio from Toronto, the group’s original aesthetic reworking of tracks by those such as Odd Future and Kanye West has been dropped in favour of entirely original compositions. And boy, what compositions these are. Danceable and intelligent, BBNG feel like your favourite hip-hop producer confined to a late night jazz hall, and with the future collaborative release with Ghostface Killah, it is only up for these pioneering artists.
Honourable Mentions: clipping./Pink Guy/Lune Kiri /Future Islands/Real Estate