So this is embarrassingly late, even by my degraded standards of punctuality. Sorry about that. Part of the reason it’s taken me so long to get this post written is that, for the first time since 2009, I had trouble filling out my Top 10 albums list. I wouldn’t say it was a bad year for music. Regardless of one’s opinion about the state of contemporary music, we are most certainly living through a golden age of recorded-music distribution. With so much new music at our fingertips, it’s hard to conceive of an entire year being truly bad. But 2014 did feel a bit below average to me, at least in the rock, hip-hop, and electronica worlds that make up most of the new music I listen to regularly. And there were long stretches where I wasn’t listening to much new music at all, instead delving deeper into the catalogues of greats like Creedence Clearwater Revival, Joni Mitchell, Steely Dan, Lucinda Williams, and of course Neil Young. I even made a serious attempt to listen to Led Zeppelin.
Long story short, the list kind of drops off a cliff after No. 4, or maybe No. 5. I doubt anything below that would’ve made last year’s Top 10, and probably not next year’s either. That’s not to say there weren’t many enjoyable records released in 2014, just that the pool at the top was a bit shallower than usual. But the first four albums on the list below are genuinely terrific, and the others are all at least pretty good.
Also, this list is boring, which is another reason I’ve been putting it off. A whopping six of my Top 10 albums also finished among the 10 best in the recent Pazz & Jop poll. I’ve spent the 2010s oscillating between consensus-type lists in the even-numbered years and more leftfield choices in the odds, and form held this year. The only consensus favorite missing from my list is the inexplicably overpraised Lost in the Dream by The War on Drugs. I’ll have an opinion on that one whenever the first song finally ends, which should be sometime in mid-June.
1. Run the Jewels—Run the Jewels 2
Killer Mike and El-P consciously invoked the spirit of hip-hop’s golden age with last year’s Run the Jewels mixtape, a triumph of streetwise bravado and taut, no-nonsense beats. But old school hip-hop wasn’t just boasting and battle raps. It was political too, as much by its very existence as the lyrical content of greats like Public Enemy. And so what could have been a mere victory lap became a major statement.
Unlike its predecessor, Run the Jewels 2 is a full-fledged studio album, and it sounds like it. El-P’s bring-the-noise production snaps with a crispness presumably impossible to get on the budget-constrained mixtape. Perhaps not coincidentally, he also sounds more forceful and confident as a rapper. Highlight “Oh My Darling Don’t Cry” hums like a swarm of locusts, with El calling out the crimes of the rich and powerful in one breath and boasting of his sexual prowess in the next, to say nothing of advising his detractors to “go run naked backward through a field of dicks.”
But it’s still Mike’s show. From the already classic intro to the closing sendoff of “Angel Duster,” the Best Rapper Alive unleashes verse after verse of hard-hitting street politics. Complementing the tough-guy raps of “Blockbuster Night Part 1” and “Jeopardy” is the first verse of “Crown,” in which Mike struggles to forgive himself for the damage he caused during his days of drug dealing. Generally suspicious of organized religion, he’s dumbstruck by a former addict who’s found Christ and releases him from the pain he caused her. Mike’s full vocal range is on display in the second verse of “Lie, Cheat, Steal,” a riff on class, power, and privilege ostensibly about former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling. Mike tears through the verse with impressive technical virtuosity, subtly shifting his tone of voice and changing cadences on a dime.
And of course there’s the first verse of “Early,” a chilling account of a petty arrest that escalates into tragedy. I tried to write a post about RTJ2 back in November after seeing the group (a trio onstage including DJ Trackstar) play live, but my thoughts about the music got too tangled up in my frustrations about the Michael Brown shooting and associated events. I can’t really talk about “Early” now either, except to say that it's the song I will most associate with 2014, maybe not the best song of the year, but the most emblematic. It was only fitting that the Run the Jewels tour wound up in St. Louis the night the inevitable grand jury verdict was announced. And if you haven’t watched this yet, then you should. (“Early” “Oh My Darling Don’t Cry”)
2. Aphex Twin—Syro
The first album in 13 years from Richard D. James under his primary Aphex Twin moniker is a triumphant return. Most of the tracks are based on the skittering rhythms of the ’90s drum-and-bass genre that James helped develop, built around melodic ideas that recur without ever quite repeating themselves. Staccato tones mingle with gauzy synthesizer washes, occasional human voices, nimble bass lines, and the (except in the final track) nearly ever-present beats to give each piece a unique texture. It’s intricate music that never sounds fussy, labored over just enough to achieve the illusion of effortlessness. James himself seems nonplussed, telling Pitchfork he didn’t think any of the tracks were particularly innovative and concluding, “It just totally makes me want to not do anything else in that particular style.” (Indeed, the recently released Computer Controlled Acoustic Instruments pt2 EP goes off in a completely different direction, with jagged, beat-driven pieces juxtaposed with brief piano interludes.) He’s not wrong that Syro doesn’t break a lot of new ground. Like most of the recent high-profile comeback albums—My Bloody Valentine’s mbv and Sleater-Kinney’s No Cities to Love, as well as another we'll get to shortly—there’s more consolidation than innovation happening here. But James speaks a musical language all his own and accusing him of repeating himself would be petulant and absurd. His confidence and craftsmanship bring an unexpected warmth to a musical genre often described as chilly. Syro is a fun record, the most inviting of James’s career. In its own peculiar way, it’s nothing less than an expression of the pure joy of creating—which is to say, of being alive. (“CIRCLONT6A [syrobonkus mix]” “XMAS_EVET10 [thanaton3 mix]”)
3. FKA twigs—LP1
The year’s best debut album belonged to 26-year-old Tahliah Barnett (aka FKA twigs). Generically, LP1 scans as fractured R&B, with the spare arrangements at times evoking Prince (apparently a fan), but primarily rooted in various experimental British musical subgenres of the past two decades. Tricky’s Maxinquaye looms in the background, as it will, and slower songs like “Hours” and “Numbers” have the intimate feel of the XX. The lyrics mostly deal with love/sex/relationships, but often from oblique perspectives. The extraordinary “Pendulum” eyes a fading relationship, the cryptic lyrics and spacious production ceding the emotional heft of the song to Twigs’s soaring, multi-tracked vocals. Closer “Kicks” is a song about masturbation that’s not calculated to shock or offend, and the lustful “Two Weeks” appears to take place entirely inside the singer’s head. Twigs comes off as confident but vulnerable, inviting but never coy. That the album feels so unified despite the presence of nine producers (including Twigs herself, as well as the ubiquitous Arca) is a testament to the strength of an artistic persona that already appears fully formed. This was some of the most challenging, original music I heard in a year when too many artists played it safe. It actually stretched me a bit. (“Pendulum” “Hours”)
4. D’Angelo & the Vanguard—Black Messiah
You can tell who actually waited until the end of the year to make their best lists by whether Black Messiah showed up. This year’s Pazz & Jop winner, D’Angelo’s first album in 14 years, didn’t drop until December 15, well after the year-end deadlines of most magazines and websites. The comparisons to There’s a Riot Goin’ On don’t quite make sense to me—politics aside, D’Angelo is on a far different spiritual wavelength than Sly Stone was in 1971, and, unlike Sly, he’s basically a classicist—but this is a groove record, with D’Angelo’s vocals often buried in the mix. (A lyric sheet is essential here.) I don’t have much else to say about this one, but its many virtues—elegant compositions, precise arrangements, expert musicianship—are obvious enough. (“The Charade” “Really Love”)
5. Angel Olsen—Burn Your Fire for No Witness
The third album from Chicago singer-songwriter Angel Olsen stitches various threads of folk, rock, and country music into a reasonably coherent neo-Americana thing. Stylistically, the songs range from the fuzzrock of “Forgiven/Forgotten” to the acoustic dirge “White Fire” (think Leonard Cohen by way of Mazzy Star’s “Into Dust”) to the wistful lounge pop of “Iota.” As the title suggests, this music has a quiet strength at its core, a steely resolve possibly born of heartbreak. (“White Fire” “Hi-Five”)
6. Iceage—Plowing Into the Field of Love
After making the best punk rock album in years with last year’s You’re Nothing, the Danish trio takes a left turn into postpunk, lowering the tempo and volume, and echoing a more eclectic set of antecedents, including Nick Cave and the Libertines. Still only 22, singer Elias Bender Ronnenfelt tries on personas like hats throughout the record, from the privileged manchild of “The Lord’s Favorite” to the doomed romantic of “Against the Moon.” (“Stay” “Glassy Eyed, Dormant and Veiled”)
7. St. Vincent—St. Vincent
8. Spoon—They Want My Soul
Better than solid but not quite great, the latest from [St. Vincent/Spoon] is a triumph of tastefully arranged sonic clatter that lacks a standout song and doesn’t venture too far outside the comfort zone established by previous work. It’s not [her/their] best album, but nonetheless represents another strong entry from an indie stalwart. [(“Digital Witness” “Prince Johnny”)/ (“Outlier” “Rainy Taxi”)]
9. Flying Lotus—You’re Dead!
A jazztronica concept album about death seems like a tough sell. A sense of humor helps (note the exclamation point in the title), as does a relatively short running time. Still, I thought to myself, there’s something vaguely unsatisfying about this album that I can’t put my finger on. FlyLo has said he intended You’re Dead! to be listened to in sequence as a single piece, but perhaps the album was somehow less than the sum of its parts. And then came Robert Christgau’s capsule from last week, which I quote in full: “The problem isn’t that it’s less than the sum of its parts—the problem is that there is no sum, only parts.” Yeah, that was it. (“Coronus, The Terminator” “Moment of Hesitation”)
10. Cloud Nothings—Here and Nowhere Else
Singer Dylan Baldi and his band tend to go back to the same bag of tricks over and over (e.g., cranking up the volume halfway through the chorus, seemingly random screaming of lyrics), but with eight songs in just 32 minutes, this throwback to ’90s-style lo-fi hard rock doesn’t stick around long enough to become tiresome. Most of the lyrics deal with the loss of reality, so there’s that too. (“I’m Not Part of Me” “No Thoughts”)
Five runners-up (in alphabetical order)
Drive-by Truckers—English Oceans
The veteran Southern rockers return with their best album since 2008’s Brighter Than Creation’s Dark. Lead Trucker Patterson Hood is a bit off his game this time around (at least until the majestic closer “Grand Canyon”) but bassist Mike Cooley, whose relative dearth of songwriting production normally relegates him to second-fiddle status, writes and sings half of the album, contributing most of the highlights. (“Made-Up English Oceans” “Shit Shots Count”)
With her former Wild Flag bandmates returning to Sleater-Kinney, Mary Timony starts something new with this trio, also including bassist Betsy Wright and drummer Laura Harris. Timony plays it straighter than usual on the guitar, but if you check any expectations at the door, these power pop tunes are plenty enjoyable on their own terms. (“Radio On” “How You Got That Girl”)
Liz Harris has been putting out music under the Grouper name for a solid decade now but had somehow escaped my notice until a few months ago. The songs are slow and quiet, with Harris’s voice and piano accompanied by ambient sounds. The atmosphere is so compelling, that the sudden beep of a microwave (I think) is truly jarring. This is the one I may regret not including in the Top 10, but I need to live with it through a few humid summer nights first. ("Lighthouse" "Call Across Rooms")
Julian Casablancas & The Voidz—Tyranny
People seemed actually upset about the existence of this album, which is reason enough to include it here. Tyranny could admittedly be described as “sprawling,” but I would argue this surprisingly eclectic work of noise-rock skronk is the most interesting Casablancas project since The Strokes’ also widely hated First Impressions of Earth. (“Father Electricity” “Human Sadness”)
White Lung—Deep Fantasy
I almost missed this one, mainly on account of a Pitchfork review that wrongly made it sound like a screeching ideological tract. This Vancouver quartet could be described as post-post-riot grrrl, or post-post-post-riot grrrl, or…something. Wait, one of them’s a guy? Whatever. It’s loud, it’s fast, it’s admirably brief (10 songs in 22 minutes!). It’s good. (“Down It Goes” “Face Down”)
Top 5 Songs Not on Those Albums
1. U2—“California (There Is No End to Love)”
Songs of Innocence will almost surely have a better reputation 10 years from now, once the actual music becomes separated from the album’s ill-conceived release strategy. But all that noise aside, it remains a strange U2 album. The band’s usual producers are unfortunately absent, Bono’s lyrics are unusually autobiographical, and most of the best songs are stacked toward the end. The spotty first half does have one classic U2 song, inspired by the band’s first visit to the West Coast.
This one goes some dark places for a pop song.
3. Real Estate—“Navigator”
4. Parquet Courts—“Instant Disassembly”
The centerpiece of Parquet Courts’ slightly disappointing second album channels Blonde on Blonde in a way I hadn’t heard in a while. The closing refrain sure took on a different meaning by the end of the year, though.
5. Cymbals Eat Guitars—“Jackson”