Best music of 2014
The RN&R Arts & Culture Editor picks his favorite new albums of the last year
This is an exercise in futility. Every year, I write a list of my favorite new albums of the year, and every year I hear a great record—one that should've made the cut—a couple of weeks after my list is published. And sometimes, albums I'm really excited about in December start sounding stale by March. So by no means consider this list absolutely definitive. It's just a list of albums that I really enjoyed this year, some recommendations for y'all to give a spin. It's just one part of an ongoing conversation.
Also, I’m a straight, white, American male in his mid-30s. That’s like the worst possible perspective. Dickheads like me have been dominating discussions of pop music since before Thomas Edison first cut “Mary had a Little Lamb” to wax. After I culled together my final list this year, I had the terrible realization that, although it was fairly diverse in terms of genre, it was all macho music. All dudes. One of the albums even has the word “dude” in the title. I don’t think that’s ever happened to me before. PJ Harvey’s masterful Let England Shake topped my 2011 list, for example, and the all-female post-punk quartet Savages’ fantastic debut came in second place last year. I thought about bumping up St. Vincent’s album or something, but that kind of tokenism made me feel even more gross than the horrifying recognition of the limitations of my own perspective.
10 Freddie Gibbs & Madlib: Piñata This is just a masterfully crafted rap record. Producer Madlib's beats sound more rugged than a lot of his stuff, but still retain his trademark psychoactive properties, which goes well with Freddie Gibbs' G-funk flow. And the rogues gallery of guest verses is just insane: Danny Brown, Raekwon, Earl Sweatshirt, Scarface and more—everybody bringing their A-game.
9 Shellac: Dude Incredible Steve Albini's legacy is primarily the many, many albums he's recorded—some of them stone classics like Nirvana's In Utero and Pixies’ Surfer Rosa. But he’s also played guitar and sung in some great groups over the years, not the least of which is this trio of moonlighting recording engineers. It’s stripped-down noise rock, played with prudent use of space and silence, and recorded with in-the-room-with-these-assholes intimacy. The band members’ rude, acerbic senses of humor are on proud display throughout—in the wit of the music and in the sting of the lyrics.
8 Budos Band: Burnt Offering This is just great stuff: an all-instrumental mix of '60s soul and funk, big, reedy Ethiopian jazz, hip hop grooves, and stoner-ready distorted guitars. It's accessible enough that anybody can dance to it, but unpredictable and musical enough to appeal to the most discriminating heads.
7 Future Islands: Singles Like a lot of people, I discovered Future Islands through the clip of the band performing “Seasons (Waiting On You)” on David Letterman's TV show. Of course, I didn't see the performance when it aired because I'm not 90 years old, but I watched the clip online after it went viral a day or two later. It's hard to say what's so compelling about that clip—I guess it's just seeing a pudgy, balding dude dancing around like he's Beyonce and singing sincerely like he's Michael Bolton. But it's also just a really well crafted song, and it's not even the best on the record. My pick for that honor is “Fall From Grace,” a creepy dirge that sounds like it was inspired by the music from Twin Peaks.
6 D'Angelo and the Vanguard: Black Messiah I'm glad I waited til a little later than I usually do to compile my albums-of-the-year list, because if I'd done it earlier, I probably would've missed this dark, wild, funky soul record that dropped on December 15. It seemed to come out of nowhere. D'Angelo's last album, Voodoo, came out way back in 2000. Black Messiah is a strange and gorgeous record, alternately smooth and weird—or both.
5 Iceage: Plowing Into the Field of Love I know a lot of music fans who are sick of these bratty Danish punks, but I just can't get enough. This record, the band's third, isn't exactly more “mature,” but it's slightly more refined. Many of the songs are morose, mid-tempo ballads, some with a surreal country-rock vibe. Vocalist Elias Bender Rønnenfelt sings with a breathy, serious baritone, sort of like Joy Division's Ian Curtis. But I think Ronnenfelt has a better sense of humor. That said, he remains the worst interview I've ever done. Except for maybe Glen Danzig.
4 Total Control: Typical System This Australian band explores New Wave-inspired post-punk. This record is an excellent follow-up to 2011's Henge Beat (a perfect example of an album that would’ve made my top 10 that year had I heard it before year’s end). The record is a thrilling mix of Gary Numan-like synthpop and spiky Wire-like song fragments. It sounds “'80s” in the best possible way. And there’s a nice Reno connection: The album was released on Iron Lung Records, the label run by the members of Iron Long, the powerviolence duo that formed here before moving on to greener pastures.
3 Brian Eno & Karl Hyde: High Life Brian Eno, inventor of “ambient music,” innovative electronic music composer, acclaimed producer of the best albums by David Bowie, Talking Heads, U2 and more, is still oddly underrated as a songwriter. His rock albums from the '70s, like Here Come the Warm Jets and Another Green World, are some of the best ever made. This new record, one of two released this year made in collaboration with Karl Hyde of the dance band Underworld, is Eno’s best since at least 2005’s Another Day on Earth, if not longer. The album title is a play on highlife, a West African pop music genre, and fascinating African rhythms abound, often played on strange-sounding guitars.
2 Swans: To Be Kind The last Swans album, The Seer, was my favorite record of 2012. This one is arguably even better. Like its predecessor, it’s a double album, containing jewels of repetitious, abrasive noise rock—tantric meditation music for S&M enthusiasts—but the songwriting is actually even better on To Be Kind. Vocalist M. Gira is in fine form throughout, and nestled alongside the long, noisy, hypnotic epics are shorter bass-led rock bruisers.
1 Run the Jewels: Run the Jewels 2 Rapper and hip-hop producer El-P had a great year back in 2012. His solo album, Cancer 4 Cure, was one of the best rap records of the year, and Atlanta rapper Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music, which El-P produced, was arguably even better. Each rapper had a verse on the other’s album, and as good as each record was, they were even better in tandem. And the best songs from the two records were easily combined into one unbeatable playlist. Then, in 2013, the two rappers came together to form the duo Run the Jewels, and they released an excellent self-titled album. But, as good as that record was, it seemed like a lark, a dry run. It felt like the best was yet to come, and it did in the form of 2014’s best album: Run the Jewels 2.
It’s a record that feels like the culmination not just of the careers of two veteran MCs, but also of the three decade history of politically charged hip-hop. The two rappers complement each other perfectly: the angry, politically astute black Southerner and the chip-on-the-shoulder white New Yorker, trading verses and lines, with equal vocal and lyrical dexterity. But some of the highlights are the guest verses: erstwhile Rage Against the Machine vocalist Zack De La Rocha shows up on “Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)” and delivers his best verse in over a decade, if not ever. Three 6 Mafia associate Gangsta Boo shows up on the satirical sex jam “Love Again (Akinyele Back),” and she delivers the best and raunchiest verse on the song, subverting expectations of hip-hop misogyny. Does that praise of Gangsta Boo make up for the lack of female representation elsewhere on my list? Probably not. Not at all.