These are the ten albums that came out in 2014 that I consider essential. These are the albums that outlined the shape of music for me. All of them I listened to dozens of times. Sometimes I just had to go see them do it in person.
I would love for you to get a taste of these albums, and roll them around on your tongue. It was a good year.
10. The Clientele – Suburban Light
I would have never guessed this album would have been on this list when I first heard it. I would have never guessed it would have edged out a similarly beautiful and gentle album by a band I love, Real Estate. But I have a feeling this album is going to be soundtracking my rainy Tuesday nights for many years to come.
Listen to the infinitely mellow Reflections After Jane:
And the slightly more rocking Joseph Cornell (which makes me sing the line "If we're on Delancey Street…" every time I walk down Delancey Street:
9. Angel Olsen – Burn Your Fire For No Witness
In an interview, the producer said a rough sound was so important to Angel Olsen that they didn't use any mic that cost more $100. They did a good job. Burn Your Fire For No Witness sounds vital and passionate. Angel's voice smolders with desperation and feeling. The guitars crunch with sweet menace. A good portion of these songs could fairly be called timeless.
I think the best introduction to the album is its magnificent one-two punch of it's opening two songs. First the plaintive Unfucktheworld:
And then the howler Forgiven/Forgotten:
8. Run The Jewels – RTJ2
Do me a favor if you like rap. Play the new Wu-Tang album, and make a tic mark every time you hear someone rap something amazing that makes you want to repeat it to another person wide-eyed in amazement that another human being came up with that. Then play RTJ2 right after it and do the same thing. My guess is you’re going to end up with 8000% more tick marks on the RTJ2 side. Listen to two guys who are just realizing they’re getting the first real chance to shine after working at it for 20 years and they’re not going to let this chance slip through their fingers. Hear totally new ways to shit talk. Hear Killer Mike open up the album by squealing, “I’m finna bang this bitch the fuck out!” and then he promptly does.
Even if you don't like rap, try the relaxed but still great wordplay of All My Life:
And my favorite song on the album is Early, where Killer Mike describes an encounter with police. It gives me chills:
7. Sia – 1000 Forms of Fear
This is not my favorite Sia album. That would be her dark 2001 masterpiece, Healing Is Difficult, a fun, jazzy, dark-pop masterpiece that almost everyone in the world slept on. 1000 Forms of Fear is much more a pop album, with at least one certified major hit in Chandelier. As a part of Sia's committment to use visual replacements for herself in all of the visual material for this album, an insanely talented 11 year old dancer serves as a stand-in for her in the Chandelier video. The video is a little shocking and you should watch it right now:
That song aside, Sia has a majestic and elastic voice and a unique gift for writing evocative songs. I think my favorite is the smoky torch song Straight for the Knife, which probably could have been rocked by Dusty Springfield:
6. Against Me! – Transgender Dysphoria Blues
The Against Me! lead singer used to present as a man. Now she sings and lives as a woman. I have an unprecedented number of people in my life who decided to transition to living as a woman and I'm guessing they all identify with the lyric: "You want them to notice the ragged ends of your summer dress. You want them to see you just like any other girl. They just see a faggot." Transgender Dysphoria is a term psychologists use to describe someone unhappy with the gender they were assigned. Against Me! tells the story pretty well in the pop-post-punk idiom. These are some thrilling songs.
Unconditional Love reminds us that "Even if your love was unconditional, it still wouldn't be enough to save me":
And the title track, Transgender Dysphoria Blues:
5. A Sunny Day in Glasgow – Sea When Absent
There's two particularly thrilling moments for me on Sea When Absent that make it really stand out. One is the first few seconds of the album where a doom-metal crunch fanfare makes you think for one moment that this is going to be a very different kind of album, before the lead singer's angelic voice and 80's synth stabs immediately confuse. The other is about 20 seconds into the second song, titled In Love With Useless (The Timeless Geometry in the Tradition of Passing) where the song breaks and she yelps: "Antipsychotics / Sink to the bottom / Dreams that were buried / Comin' up". The sample of her singing is proccessed in such a way that the moments of quiet are cut off, like someone talking on a bad cell phone signal. The result is exuberant and actually thrilling. This is a beautiful and exquisitely layered album that sounds like nothing else this year.
Byebye, Big Ocean (The End):
In Love With Useless (The Timeless Geometry in the Tradition of Passing):
4. Caribou – Our Love
The album starts out with a low-pitched vocal sample of Dan Snaith repeatedly singing, “Can’t do without” about 60 times until another layer of him singing in falsetto, “I can’t do without you” comes in as another layer, and it’s not until almost halfway into the song that the full spectrum of sonic color comes in. Dan Snaith has made several albums as Caribou, each one a new take on his idea of dance music. He’s been more adventurous before, but he’s never made such a consistent and beautiful statement. If you can, listen to this album on good enough speakers to hear all its amazing studio tricks.
Listen to the mesmerizing album opener Can't Do Without You:
And the closer, the sonic landscape of Your Love Will Set You Free:
3. Cymbals Eat Guitars – LOSE
Joe D'agostino (most Long Island name ever? probably) opens his song Chambers like this: "The feds closed Silk Road, and I'm out in the cold 'cause I don't know anyone. Lights out in South Beach, coming up on seven weeks, need a pill to sleep so I drive out to Stapleton, but even I'm not dumb enough to enter The Chambers.” That's just one of his vivid stories about his childhood and fairly fucked up adulthood. I played this album for a friend and she said, "He has such a pretty voice. Why can't he sing about something nice?" In response they sent the following tweet:
— Cymbals Eat Guitars (@CYMBLS_EAT_GTRS) November 5, 2014
The aforementioned Chambers:
And a beautiful ballad called Child Bride where he talks about the moment he realized a young friend of his was going to be fucked up for life, and then how he met her years later at a concert and was bragging about how her new girlfriend "turned her on to crack":
2. Flying Lotus – You're Dead
You ever hear an otherwise good instrumental album ruined by a couple of dunderheaded rap verses that clearly don't belong there. I sure have. (See the first Burial album and many many more.) That's not what happens here, however. Kendrick Lamar, Snoop Dogg(!) and a couple other people add perfect meditations on death to Flying Lotus's expansive compositions. Is this an amazing free Jazz album? A hip hop album? Electronic music by one of the most explosive and inventive electronic music artists? Yes.
If someone showed me an insane audiophile stereo system and said, "What do you want to boom out of this? You only get one album!"
"You're dead," I'd say.
The album plays like one continuous suite, and most of the songs are under two minutes so it's difficult to pick only a couple of tracks. Never Catch Me is a great representative track with a good mix of electronic music, jazz, and hip hop, with a great Kendrick Lamar rap about death:
And to show some of the breadth of the album, this later, almost interstitial interlude Turtles:
1. FKA twigs – LP1
Most years I agonize about the best album of the year but not this year. I knew months ago that it would be hard for anything to unseat this minimal R&B masterwork. I like my beats and electronic sounds fierce and asymetrical and challenging. FKA twigs ode to sex, alienation, desperation, and fame is lonely and perfect for every moment of its running time. This is the kind of album you want to blast on a good speaker system with plenty of bass, but works on tinny earbuds just fine. The beats clatter and intrude and seduce but her voice floats above it perfectly, with her own dark and beguiling anthems. One of my favorite songs is Video Girl. She was once, a "Video Girl". She's an unusual and beautiful woman, with unnaturally full lips and slender form. She danced in other artists videos and became semi-famous a first time that way, but she was determined to be known for her own musical work. So when people approached her on the street, recognizing her from the videos, she'd say, "Yeah, I get that all the time, I know I look like her, but it's not me." So the lyric in the song goes, "She's the girl from the video / you're lying, you're lying, you're lying." Now when they stop her and say "hey you're the girl from the video" at least they're talking about HER videos, which are insane. Now all we need is a James Blake, FKA Twigs collaboration.
Video Girl is essential:
And Pendulum encapsulates everything I like about the album. Its etherial textures, odd rhythms, and sincere singing. When she sings "I'm a sweet little lovemaker" I believe her:
Ok, now it's time to listen to everyone else's end of year lists, or listen to all 20 songs as a playlist.