Monday, December 29, 2014

Best 50 Albums of 2014

At first I thought 2014 was kind of an off year for music, but doing lists like this remind me that there can't possibly be such a thing. I made a Spotify playlist, which you can also listen to at the bottom and make sure to check back soon for my top 250 singles list.

1. Beyoncé - Beyoncé

Of course this album should be under 2014 consideration. How else to explain all the widespread adoration but only so few appearances on critics' year-end lists in 2013? It was released late last December, which was much too close to the end of the year for me and a lot of people to put into proper context of what it meant at the end of the calendar. Twelve months have passed since then and I can confidently say it's still the best thing I've heard in that span. One of the more intriguing developments of the pop world within the past few years was how her previous album, 4, felt like more than just an attempt to put together a radio-ready collection of songs and strove to keep up with some of her more adventurous contemporaries. This was surprising in that it felt like the first LP where we got a glimpse at Beyoncé The Artist and not just simply Beyoncé The Ridiculously Talented & Fierce Superwoman, which we had seen time and time again. The seeds of that experimentation fully blossomed on Beyoncé, her most challenging work yet. The usual Beyoncé trademarks were there, but instead of embracing their more commercial aspects, we were treated with more details that gave everything a personal feel. Girls still ran the world, but novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adicihe was there to explain why. You could still get her bodied, but you had to solve the riddle, and so on. It's a very rare thing when artists of Beyoncé's talent and stature make such bold moves while at the top of their game. That they pay off and in result in an amazing piece of work that's as dark and sexy as this is even rarer.

2. Beck - Morning Phase

Maturity has served Beck Hansen well. Now in his 40s, he's made the kind of comfortably sounding, pristine record that comes along with years of experience and refining your craft. It's almost like being on the table of a great surgeon. Each listen feels like you're in the hands of someone trustworthy who's able to move with precision at all moments and the experience is easygoing. Songs such as "Don't Let It Go" and "Blue Moon" are beautifully executed examples of the type of lush folk we saw from him before on 2002's Sea Change and the results are just as good this time around. With Morning Phase, things are a bit more Fairport Convention than Serge Gainsbourg, but no matter the era he's being inspired by, albums like this are the reason we're still paying attention to Beck 20 years after his major label debut.

3. Ex Hex - Rips

While I certainly have nothing against the great collection of songs on the Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack, when I think of superb power pop experiences in 2014, Rips is the first thing that comes to mind. The always reliable and ever busy Mary Timony struck side-project gold again just a few years after Wild Flag, who landed in the upper reaches of my 2011 albums list. Brief, crunchy and to the point, Rips was another worthwhile addition to Timony's catalog that has seen her be underrated for far too long. Garage rock and power pop may not currently have the vintage luster like they did in the mid-'90s, yet should it matter if songs as catchy as "Waste Your Time" and "How You Got That Girl"—written by bandmate Betsy Wright—exist in a year where thousands of people heard and enjoyed The Raspberries' "Go All The Way" for the first time?

4. Freddie Gibbs & Madlib - Piñata

Freddie Gibbs' prowess has never been in doubt. He's always been able to paint a clear, unflinching portrait of street life, albeit more traditional than boundary-pushing. Madlib, with his cut-and-paste eccentric style, initially might not seem like the type of producer who would fit Gibbs' bleak, straightforward style, but he probably understood him better than anyone who previously worked with him. By measuring Gibbs' aggressive bursts, Madlib's truncated, sample-heavy method of producing highlighted his strengths by giving the album a swift flow. Such unconventional song structures let Gibbs focus on those grim tales without having to worry about crafting a catchy hook and also injected some soul into a persona that was previously impenetrable for the most part.

5. Kimbra - The Golden Echo

I'm a sucker for audaciously eclectic albums such as this. Kimbra's foray into R&B was met with mostly confusion as there was probably nothing on The Golden Echo that had a shot at top 40 radio. The case could be made that it didn't know what it wanted to be at times. One moment she's dabbling in Prince-inspired funk on "Madhouse" and on another like "Carolina," she's revisiting the alternative pop of her debut album, Vows. That erratic nature can be a turn-off for some listeners over the course of an album, but when it's tackled with such boldness, it's a positive trait for me. I'm all for being surprised by an album, but most importantly, the quality has to be there. The fact that The Golden Echo is a bit sprawling shouldn't count against it, but that in spite of not adhering to trends, it remained coherent and built upon its influences to create a vision that was singular to 2014.

6. Neneh Cherry - Blank Project

In a career that's never been easy to predict, Cherry's fourth solo album found her tackling minimalist electronic music with none other than IDM great, Four Tet. Her commanding presence was still intact and magnified by the sparseness of the instrumentation, that over the course of Blank Project that served as a reminder that she was indeed a big star decades ago. Album opener, "Across The Water" is as bare bones as things get, but when it comes to Cherry's vocals, you can hear a patience and world-weariness in her approach that makes her words feel eminently important. With songs of pain and despair, Blank Project was a far cry from the bright, multi-colored days of Raw Like Sushi, but much like that debut album released 25 years ago, you're left feeling curious as to where she's going next without really having a clue of what that will be.

7. TEEN - The Way and Color

The haziness that makes itself at home on the Brooklyn quartet's second full-length album is of the R&B variety. It's the kind that relies on groove and harmonies with a softer touch than what some bands did when they discovered the sounds of yacht rock five or six years ago. That foundation in soul music, or at least that's what it feels like to me, along with some of the psychedelic leanings they've shown in the past made The Way and Color one of the most enchanting listens of 2014. It's a delicate fog of tertiary colors and trumpets that floats with a humming calm, especially on the closer, "All The Same" and atmospheric tracks like "Sticky" and "Breathe Low & Deep."

8. Alvvays - Alvvays

The abundance of charm on this debut album certainly has a lot in common with twee music. The vocals are precious, the guitars pack jangle and it's all incredibly sweet. Indie pop confections like this may not get as much attention as they used to, save for a new Best Coast album, but regardless of what's fashionable, there should always be room for dessert. "Archie, Marry Me," one of the year's best singles, is a shining example of the distortion-drenched pining that made Alvvays so addictive. It's like an early Camera Obscura track without the lushness and the volume turned up, which is pretty apt for how much of the album sounds.

9. The New Pornographers - Brill Bruisers

When looking at some of today's premier indie rock bands that got their start in the late '90s or early '00s, The New Pornographers have always appeared to be a tier below the Spoons and Wilcos of the world in regards to popularity. Perhaps it's because they were unable to capitalize on the goodwill of Twin Cinema by following it up with some of their least critically-acclaimed albums. Or maybe their sound is just too cheery for those who think "real music" has to include more groaning and fewer catchy tunes, likely leaving them to not be taken seriously. An album like Brill Bruisers makes the case that The New Pornographers are just as worthy of headlining festivals or getting a top five debut on the Billboard Top 200. By switching the focus to Blaine Thurier's keyboards (which were a big part of me becoming a fan in the first place), the band sounded more energized than they've had in a while. Their line-up of songwriters and musicians has always been formidable, but when they bring their A-game, few acts can pack as much sugar and power into their choruses like they can.

10. Azealia Banks - Broke With Expensive Taste

The expectations that came with her 2011 single, "212," were monumental, at the least. It was a blessing and a curse to come out of the gate with something so unique: good for the fact it gave her some buzz, and bad since anything else she did after would be compared directly to it. I'm sure I wasn't alone in my pessimism over Ms. Banks career post-"212," for all its Twitter feuds and unimpressive singles, which is what makes Broke With Expensive Taste such a pleasant surprise. Despite all of the negative attention, she made good on the potential of her debut single with a steady stream of some of the best dance and electronic producers around. It's an eclectic, brash album that showcased Azealia's charisma and ability to be a star as evidenced on "Soda," a song about depression which has the smoothest chorus of the bunch and her duet with Theophilus London, "JFK," which bridged the worlds of house, hip hop and pop seamlessly.

And the rest...

11. Aphex Twin - Syro
12. First Aid Kit - Stay Gold
13. The Juan MacLean - In A Dream
14. tUnE-yArDs - Nikki Nack
15. Todd Terje - It's Album Time
16. Sharon Van Etten - Are We There
17. Lykke Li - I Never Learn
18. Gordon Voidwell - Bad Études
19. Grouper - Ruins
20. Le Butcherettes - Cry Is For The Flies
21. Cibo Matto - Hotel Valentine
22. Pharrell Williams - G I R L
23. Angel Olsen - Burn Your Fire For No Witness
24. Lydia Loveless - Somewhere Else
25. Schoolboy Q - Oxymoron
26. Allo Darlin' We Come From The Same Place
27. Redinho - Redinho
28. FKA twigs - LP1
29. Against Me! - Transgender Dysphoria Blues
30. 31Ø8 - 31Ø8
31. Bebel Gilberto - Tudo
32. Ghostface Killah - 36 Seasons
33. Chet Faker - Built On Glass
34. Eric Church - The Outsiders
35. St. Vincent - St. Vincent
36. Kelis - Food
37. The Preatures - Blue Planet Eyes
38. Real Estate - Atlas
39. Mac DeMarco - Salad Days
40. YG - My Krazy Life
41. Miranda Lambert - Platinum
42. Run The Jewels - Run The Jewels 2
43. Mr. Twin Sister - Mr. Twin Sister
44. Lone - Reality Testing
45. Mick Jenkins - The Water[s]
46. Mariah Carey - Me. I Am Mariah... (The Elusive Chanteuse)
47. Flying Lotus - You're Dead
48. Vince Staples - Shyne Coldchain Vol. 2
49. PRhyme - PRhyme
50. Stars - No One Is Lost

Honorable Mention

The #1s - The Number Ones
Ab-Soul - These Days
Jhené Aiko - Souled Out
Ariel Pink - pom pom
Banks - Goddess
Courtney Barnett - The Double EP: A Sea Of Split Peas
Bas - Last Winter
Betty Who - Take Me When You Go
Big K.R.I.T. - Cadillactica
Black Milk - If There's A Hell Below
Mary J. Blige - The London Sessions
Jesse Boykins III - Love Apparatus
Cherry Glazerr-Haxel Princess
J. Cole - 2014 Forest Hill Drive
Cyhi The Prynce - Black Hystori Project
Deerhoof - La Isla Bonita
Lana Del Rey - Ultraviolence
DJ Quik - The Midnight Life
The-Dream - Royalty
Dum Dum Girls - Too True
Electric Youth - Innerworld
Sophie Ellis-Bextor - Wanderlust
The Fresh and Onlys - House Of Spirits
Future - Honest
Future Islands - Singles
Go Home Productions - Spliced Krispies Vol. 2
Goldlink - The God Complex
Ariana Grande - My Everything
José James - While You Were Sleeping
Mara Hruby - Archaic Rapture
Olivia Jean - Bathtub Love Killings
Jeremih & Shlohmo - No More
Katy B - Little Red
Kehlani - Cloud 19
King Louie - Tony
La Roux - Trouble In Paradise
Lee Fields & The Expressions - Emma Jean
Lil Herb - Welcome To Fazoland
Little Dragon - Nabuma Rubberband
Little Jackie - Queen Of Prospect Park
LIZ - Just Like You
Luluc - Passerby
Mapei - Hey Hey
Martha - Counting Strong
Medicine - Home Everywhere
K. Michelle - Anybody Wanna Buy A Heart
Kylie Minogue - Kiss Me Once
MØ - No Mythologies To Follow
Music Go Music - Impressions
Netherfriends - P3ACE
Nikkiya - sheBLACKOUT
Damani Nkosi - Thoughtful King
Owen Pallett - The Riverbed
Perfect Pussy - Say Yes To Love
Perfume Genius - Too Bright
Rapsody - Beauty and the Beast
Rick Ross - Mastermind
Rubblebucket - Survival Sounds
Saint Pepsi - Gin City
SD - Truly Blessed
Shamir - Northtown EP
Skrillex - Recess
Sam Smith - In The Lonely Hour
Speedy Ortiz - Real Hair
Step Brothers - Lord Steppington
Moses Sumney - Mid City Island
Sun Kil Moon - Benji
Sylvan Esso - Sylvan Esso
Teyana Taylor - VII
Tinashe - Aquarius
Tink - Winter's Diary 2
Toni Braxton & Babyface - Love, Marriage & Divorce
Tweens - TWEENS
The Veronicas - The Veronicas
The War On Drugs - Lost In The Dream
Jessie Ware - Tough Love
Jack White - Lazaretto
Wildcat! Wildcat! - No Moon At All
Zola Jesus - Taiga

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