The 30 Best Albums of 2014
We are blessed with an abundance of music, technology has enabled us to have access to more music than we could ever possibly listen to. Whether it's by a new artist that we would never have heard before the internet made sharing easy, or by some long forgotten Ethiopian singer, it doesn't matter; vast streaming libraries have made our every whim and curiosity a simple click away.
The music press once acted as gatekeepers, providing an entry point with their trusted voice, there was no other point of access for most people. Now the music press are a series of signposts, mostly made up of people that spend more time looking and recommending than everyone else. Representing a niche interest, a small portion of a larger picture; with the gates now firmly opened that need has changed. Which is a good thing - limited access meant that a few key opinions were worth more than the opinions of the majority. That balance was unjust, it was easily corruptible and controlled, and now that is impossible. A publication is not relied upon to judge so much anymore, now that we can listen for ourselves, it's relied upon to curate, to simply contain a selection of songs or artists for us to listen to and judge for ourselves. That shift in power and thinking is undoubtedly a good and necessary thing.
The key difference is that the determining factor in judging music, now we have access to so much, is the limitation of our attention span. There is so much to listen to, to experience, that how long we give a song (let alone an album) before we click away is the ultimate rating. Subsequently, the music that is dwelled upon the most is often the least challenging, it's the music that is easiest to understand, multiple listens are not an option and neither is allowing time for complex ideas to sink in. It's tempting to simply just tick the box and move on.
With this list of thirty albums, we are not just pointing you at music that we think deserves your attention, although each album certainly warrants just that. We're pointing you at albums that we think deserve your continued attention, they deserve a second chance if you've previously written them off. Please use their inclusion in our list as an excuse to revisit them.
We're not seeking to define our website with this list. We define ourselves by our actions, our attitudes, and our excellent and speedy use of GIFs in emails - not our taste in 'things' - but we understand that this list will be judged. That is the point of it, to provoke discussion and debate, even if only internally, and hopefully to help you discover or rediscover, something that you will love forever.
Thank you for visiting, I hope you leave with something you didn't have when you arrived, and if you do, I sincerely hope you paid for it.
William Caston Cook
Contributions from Lior Phillips, Larry Day, Will Rivitz, Rob Hakimian, Chris Taylor, Joni Roome, Oobah Butler, Jesse Bernard, Amelia Maher, Robert Whitfield, John Morrison, Derek Robertson, Tamlin Magee, Nicholas Glover, William Caston Cook, Woodrow Whyte, Lyle Bignon, Robert Whitfield, Jacob Royal, Mike Clark and Tom Jowett.
Our Thoughts: "Grouper always creates music that demands a keen and patient ear. If you make the mistake of not lending the music your full attention the songs will disintegrate and thicken the atmosphere. Grouper tenderly and quietly beckons you nearer, allowing the sadness to seep into your bloodstream. Lyrics are distant and difficult to decipher, however it isn't hard to comprehend the emotional weight of each track, even on cycloidal piano instrumentals such as 'Labyrinth', the melancholia runs thick."
Our Thoughts: "Is it possible to come of age so late in the game? Singles comes at that point where a beloved, cult band's upward trajectory is increasingly hard to maintain, and is the album they hope will drive the leap from merely surviving to a more comfortable level of success, financial and otherwise. Here Future Islands have crafted the best ten of their career. There is light at the end of the tunnel, and they have emerged, blinking and unbowed, to bask in its glow."
"More Than Any Other Day is a collection that captures the jagged catharsis of enabling your own irrationalities; concept art braver than any of its genre to be released in 2014. Ought have constructed a jigsaw complete with so much depth that, to deconstruct it takes you into the realm of futility. You can, however, pull pieces from its midst that stand-alone: the disengaged 'Gemini', the cyclical 'Pleasant Heart' - crowned by one of the songs of the year, 'Habit'. A lifetime's worth of insecurities and anxiety are captured in a moment and shattered in the next."
"East Coast flow with a West Coast ambience. That's one of many ways to describe Homeboy Sandman's fifth studio album, Hallways. With his intricate lyricism and stellar delivery, Homeboy Sandman took an experimental approach to the album. With production from DJ Spinna and Jonwayne, as well as a number of upcoming producers, Hallways pushed boundaries without being too far out. It was an ambitious effort capable of appealing to both the alternative crowd and hip-hop purists, one that paid off."
Our Thoughts: "At just under 30 minutes long, the record is as brief as it is uncompromising. Just before drawing to a finish, the titular closer starts as a sombre spoken word affair, set to white noise and a bass-laden synthetic loll. "I don't belong here" are the repeated parting words Chardiet leaves us, with before mutating into unsettling pronounced laughter, and then blending into harsh industrial discord. Her mantra couldn't be further than the truth. The world in 2014 feels all too much like a wasteland - thoroughly in dire need of a record like this."
"Aesop and Rob should really know better, but fortunately for their hardcore of obsessive, discerning fans they don't, and instead they keep on pushing out high quality rap that pushes the boundaries while maintaining what Killer Mike described as the ultimate fall back: 'If in doubt, make dope shit'. Bestiary is dirty, literate and laugh out loud funny."
"Alex Giannascoli, or Alex G as he prefers to be known, is one of those needles in a haystack. He's a terrific example of how the 'bedroom artist' can use the internet as a way of actively and independently elevating their artistic career. Having previously self-released a whole heap of material through Bandcamp and cultivating an online cult following, it is the 21-year-old's latest effort, DSU, that has become one of 2014's unsung heroes. It's a truly refreshing listen that has an honesty attached to it that is immediately relatable. Whether it's the funky-frilled riff of 'Promise' or the roaring energy of songs such as 'Black Hair' and 'Icehead', there's an exhilarating and timeless charm that surrounds the songs. Frequently unpredictable in style, but shaded with pop undertones, DSU is a solid body of work and when the the piano is suddenly cut off in final song 'Boy', it'll leave you pining for more."
Our Thoughts: "Unflesh is a surprisingly danceable record amidst all the dark beats, and this is thanks to the process Bernholz undertook whilst writing the record. After releasing debut The Entire City, Bernholz approached the follow-up with live performance as a key driver. This approach has resulted in an incredibly physical record (both tonally and lyrically) with a greater focus on percussion."
Our Thoughts: "Plenty can go on in your head while listening to Along The Way; you might have subconsciously completed a tricky '90s Japanese video game, signed up to a yoga retreat nestled in unexplored mountains, embarked on a peaceful, meditative, sci-fi hallucination, or unknowingly chanted the mantra from a new-age cult plucked straight out of a Thomas Pynchon novel. Of the infinite journeys your mind can take, each offers a completely different and uniquely personal exploration."
Our Thoughts: "If you've got the patience, then this is a remarkably rewarding listen. Kiasmos is a beautiful relationship, and if one thing comes from the release of this record, we should all bow down and pray to all the gods that it's not a one-off. There's heaps of promise here."
Our Thoughts: "Mess' unifying element lies within a perpetual conflict between conformity and escapism in the lyrical rhetoric. The musical content is a microcosm representative of the abstract and impossibly random nature of society, whilst the lyrics narrate bleakly from the surreal perspective of a majority who are utterly disgusted by the cyclical, unnatural traits of modern civilisation."
"It's hard to understand the devastating power of Angels and Devils. The album is a beast - so much bass, such brutal mid-range, terrifying, life-draining chord progressions and organs. It's something straight out of a grotesque horror film. Listen to the pitiable and dreadful vocals in 'Save Me' and it's hard not to picture a wasteland, dank and totally obliterated. The album's "Devils" half is straight carnage, sure -- it's tough not to get swept up in the absolutely massive 'Function' or the swaggering 'Fat Mac' - but it's really the "Angels" half which rightly commands the most attention here. Thanks to cavernous sound design, ominous low end, and a brilliant subversion of his dancehall roots, The Bug has created an absolute monster of a release."
Our Thoughts: "It's Album Time is an album imbued with that sense of cheekiness that pervades everything Todd Terje lays his hands on. You can sense it from the off, before you even press play; its title is clearly both a cheeky pot-shot at those, myself included, who have been complaining that there hasn't been a Todd Terje album yet, and a celebratory statement. Once you do press play, though, it's everything you hoped it would be."
"A$AP Yams proclaimed this year to be one of the worst in hip-hop history. He may have a case as many of rap's big names have held off releasing projects until the very back end of 2014. Kendrick, Kanye, Jay Rock, J.Cole, Lil Wayne are all scheduled to release new music some time soon to 'save hip-hop' from the malaise perpetrated by projects like Eminem's legacy tainting Shady XV. Thank the Lord for YG, his My Krazy Life is one of 2014's saving graces and stands head and shoulders above many of hip-hop's flops. Utilising skits and interludes in the same way as Kendrick's debut, YG charts a day in the life of a Bompton (Blood/Compton) gangsta. From slinging drugs to rolling with the homies to chasing girls to getting arrested - everything is covered as YG shows a, intelligence, versatility and maturity lacking in many of today's gangsta rappers. Aided by a stellar collection of DJ Mustard beats and an enviable supporting cast, My Krazy Life was given the highest praise possible by whoever dubbed it "the ratchet good kid, m.A.A.d city". For a hip-hop album to have a solid narrative, great beats and fresh lyrical content is a holy trinity rarely achieved. YG ticked every box and has seen his stock rise as he became the saviour of hip-hop in 2014."
"I don't even know where this fits, I've danced to it, I've stared at ceilings as the sun comes up with it playing. There's a feeling you get from this album - this suite of songs - as the ideas progressively splinter into new forms, it's a feeling of unrest, of cold discomfort, of life unraveling with the sound. Yet it's still somehow familiar, you can trace the roots from techno, you can sense its influence being deconstructed, abstracted, with ice cold precision. Death After Life is an exhilarating listen, it's an album that renders you unable to be a passive ear, willing or not, you are an active participant in the music. Which is not a bad thing as it's not a chore to listen to like challenging music can be. Instead it's a life-altering joy - it may be a solitary journey, but it's one that you want to travel again and again."
Our Thoughts: "Too Bright is a strident and bold statement from an artist who has finally undone the knot of his past. It won't be the record which brings him mainstream success but it will be the record that frees him from the pigeonholing of his bruised and broken singer-songwriter image."
"Run the Jewels 2 seems more considered than their debut, more consistent, like Killer Mike and El-P made a mission statement and talked about pacing before getting down to it. The first album was a collection of songs they made on the fly, whereas RTJ2 is a collection of songs they sat down to make. You can hear that. It's bolder, ruder, not that RTJ1 was apologetic or meek, more that it was a proof of concept whilst this album is a statement of fact. Jaime and Mike perform best when overcoming adversity, when confronting miscarriages of justice, but it's playing the brash and bold caricatures that tell everyone to "teabag a piranha tank" when you hear them having the most fun. That said, it seems like they know that it takes the filthiest bars and basslines to engage the most people, with the thinking that at least people are engaged - so maybe the "question everything" subtext will seep in somewhere. Which is fine, unless you think that most people go see a movie for the explosions and stay blissfully ignorant of the plot, then you might see it differently, because this album has plenty of explosions to stare at."
Our Thoughts: "Our Love follows the direction set out by 2010's Swim, moving further away from the composer and producer's glitch, loop and sample-based technical origins and towards a more dancefloor friendly production style, stripped of complex layers and imbued with soul."
Our Thoughts: "That's something of a theme throughout Preternaturals - the album title itself hinting at the duo's artistic ideas. The concept of preternatural phenomena has long been a part of theology, defined as phenomena that appear outside of the natural, yet are presumed to have explanations within nature we haven't discovered yet."
"Rooms With Walls and Windows was released back in January, which feels like a world away from here, I listened to this album for the first time whilst recovering from surgery and I was taken by its intimacy. The louder I played it, the closer it felt, but it never became loud. The songs on Julie Byrne's debut album are buried beneath a deep insular monochrome, they are resonating in another world, a world where time seemingly has no meaning. It freezes snowflakes in the sky around you, it places solar flare in all your photographs, and more importantly, it gets under your skin. It's such a departure from the real world that you find yourself needing it, it becomes essential, a coping mechanism, a way out of stress, struggle, desperation. All of the inescapable trappings of modern life, the web in which you find yourself caught - it doesn't exist here. More than any other album on this album list, Rooms With Walls and Windows is a quiet solitude, amongst all of the noise - it is necessary."
Our Thoughts: "Where others might get stuck in a rut for fear of alienating listeners, Clark has decided to just do things her way, influenced by her work with David Byrne who she described as "fearless", and the result is a rare gem, so packed full of influences but so distinctly St. Vincent. It's an album that, despite its placement more as high art, isn't afraid to embrace pop music for everything it's worth, managing to be accessible while also challenging, drawing the listener in with familiarity to then unleash upon them this cryptic, paradoxical world that just begs to be explored over and over again."
Our Thoughts: "There's a beautiful irony here, after all: this crew made the album that hip-hop demanded of them while simultaneously ridiculing the very enterprise. Remember that snare sample used in 'Body & Blood'? If not, go pay attention to it in the song's last 45 seconds. You should soon notice that snare sample is actually a sliver of white noise- just enough to pass by unnoticed. And it's the same breed of white noise that has set off this group's last two outings; it pulls from the same sheen of shrill static. This is still Clipping., bitch, and you'd be sorely mistaken to believe otherwise."
Our Thoughts: "This is an album firmly rooted in a decade where technology blurs the lines between fact and fiction, where we 'socialise' with brands and it's possible to feel hopelessly alone amidst the towering skyscrapers of a city. The final track 'Total Strife Forever IV' opens with static that eventually fades away to reveal grand synthesiser melodies before disintegrating once more. The beauty of those melodies is only enhanced by their temporary nature. Amidst the machinery there's a realisation that whilst the buildings, the brands and digital world might live on, it's reality and our fellow human beings that are truly beautiful and deserving of our attention."
7. Andy Stott - Faith In Strangers Amazon
"Barely ten minutes into 2014's Faith In Strangers and Andy Stott makes clear that it's to be an album of contrasts. He creates subdued, muted compositions one moment and references industrial, rust-belt wastelands the next; heavily-filtered moody electronics persistently grind forward, only to be interrupted by pointed and precise snares or speaker-defeating drum blasts. Alison Skidmore's vocals heap on more atmosphere and bring in a human touch, even if it is one that sounds morose and defeated. One of Faith In Strangers' most satisfying qualities is the masterful layering of all these different textures, which alone would be interesting enough but together entice repeated listening."
Our Thoughts: "This is not a breakup album, it's so much more than that. It is a place of solace and of memory, some memories pleasurable and others unbearably painful. Are We There is one of those rare albums when you stop listening to the music as simply a combination of chords, melodies and carefully constructed instrumentation, but as essential, emotional communication from one person to another."
Our Thoughts: "On their fourth album, Wild Beasts have made a stunning turn. Present Tense is their most beautiful, arresting and accomplished album to date - which is saying something for a band that already had a high stock of dazzling and inventive songs. They've done this by not only changing their sound musically, but opening up and being more honest. The key lyric comes at the finale of the album, when on 'Palace' Thorpe declares "we may be savage and raw, but at the core we've higher needs." On their past albums Wild Beasts have shown us their savage and raw sides, which have been gloriously charming and exciting, but by opening up on Present Tense and revealing their true hearts, their music has ascended to new heights."
"With its labyrinthine constructions and outright denial of rigid classification, Adult Jazz's début album Gist Is may be unfortunately characterised as 'intelligent'. You know, intelligent like Alt-J. Intelligent because it's somehow deliberately 'weird' in the very loose sphere of pop music. Intelligent because the band has the audacity to employ obscure-time signatures and fart around with discordant noises. As if that's the apex, what we should strive for. As if that's the best we can do.
Well, bollocks to that. Gist Is is not intelligent. To label it as such would be an insult to an album that's deeply felt, joyful, and unreservedly beautiful; that gleefully encapsulates the experiences of self-discovery during the gradual waning of adolescence. It's music not of the brain, but of the heart. An album that never tries to be intelligent, but instead feels refreshingly instinctual. There's an urgent, vital feeling that's pervasive throughout; the songs are wild and unbroken, as if they came from some primal place within the band. It's like they're playing deep in the moment, letting the songs take control and expressing ideas that would have been impossible to express otherwise. It's for this reason that it doesn't work as an album typically should; instead it moves and contorts with all the spontaneity, fluidity and delirious unpredictability of a dream.
Adult Jazz bare no marks of calculation or cynicism, their music is not an exercise in instrumental dexterity and vocal elasticity for the sake of it. Rather, there's a sense that this album needed to be made, and that every creative decision was fundamental to the band's articulation of their primal thoughts. This is even evident in the album's background. It was developed during the four years the band spent together at university in Leeds, self-recorded and produced during their summers off and self-released this August this year via Bandcamp. There was no way these songs weren't getting out there, which is something to celebrate. With Gist Is, Adult Jazz have made an album that sounds like some ecstatic, fascinating hybrid of Dirty Projectors, Bjork, Joanna Newsom and Grizzly Bear - a unique spin on artful pop that's difficult not to fall deeply in love with."
Our Thoughts: "McFerrin is part of the Brainfeeder scene that Flying Lotus has steadily nurtured over the past few years, that features many super talented musicians who push the boundaries of their respective genres - it's just with this, you don't feel like anything is being pushed or tested, it sounds so natural, so honest, so free... I honestly can't believe you're still reading this when you could be streaming the album and enjoying your life."
Our Thoughts: "This record is a wholly singular work; not only does it defy expectations of what a Flying Lotus album should sound like, it totally obliterates any preconceptions about what can be released by a remotely popular contemporary musician. And, sure, that's not inherently virtuous, you may find the album to be incomprehensibly sprawling and masturbatory. But holy shit is it refreshing. And, once you get on this album's level, holy shit is it freeing."
Our Thoughts: "If FKA Twigs' two year musical progress had to be mapped out according to the stages of human attraction, it would go like this: EP1, the first de-flowering of lust and intrigue felt, but not completely understood. EP2, the charge into experimenting the sexual terrain signified by curiosity and comfort, leaving LP1 fulfilling the role of both narcissism and commitment. She's here for the long haul.
"More than anything this feels universally appealing. You don't have to be a strict devotee of the R&B underground genre to realise that this is a great album. The sound is her own, and she's capable of making an album work as an album rather than just a collection of songs - LP1 flows beautifully it's free of those jarring collaborations and semi-high profile guest appearances we've become accustomed to hearing. I've never been sure as to what it takes to make a record live-friendly and suitable for home listening, the kind you can play five times in a row without any part of it wearing out its welcome, but there's something ineffable about this and whatever that quality is - FKA Twigs has it."
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