2014 was a weird year for new music, he began his month-and-a-half-late choice retrospective. After a totally killer 2013, it was pretty hard to imagine 2014 could top it. And, indeed, it didn’t, I don’t think. The closest we got to an “MBV” moment this year was a new D’Angelo record — which was great, by the way, so keep reading — but there were a few absolutely incredible records released over the past twelve months, and I’d like to highlight them. Some of these are obvious and you probably own them already; others are much more unique. I’d like to think that there’s something on this list for everybody.
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I start this list with an omission from my favourite albums of 2013. Released right at the tail end of last year, Beyoncé’s self-titled fifth album cemented her as the world’s biggest pop star. While it was conceived as entwined musical and video components, I’ve only “watched” the album a couple of times. However, since each song on the album has a video, when every song is, in effect, a single, no song is a single. Through explorations of beauty, marriage, feminism, and sexuality, Beyoncé is truly best listened to as a full album, not as individual songs. To top it all off, the album is produced with a special kind of finesse and care that I haven’t heard in a long time. It’s an event unlike any album released this year. Praise Queen Bey.
Picks: Ghost/Haunted; Drunk in Love; Yoncé/Partition; Flawless
Bob Mould spent the majority of his twenties and thirties defining and influencing the sound of alternative rock music in the 1980’s and ’90’s, as the frontman of Hüsker Dü and Sugar, as well as forging a successful solo career. On Beauty & Ruin, Mould has decided to take stock of decades of being a badass rock icon, which isn’t exactly a novel concept. But Mould approaches it with the kind of ferocity and intensity only he can muster, backed by a crazy-tight rhythm section. The album’s opener, Low Season, was panned by critics, but it’s one of my favourite songs on the record — it has a very special kind of warmth. But, then again, so does the rest of the album.
Picks: Low Season; Little Glass Pill; Tomorrow Morning
Eking a sense of emotion or genuine passion from electronic instruments is no small feat. The subtle differences in the way two guitarists may place their fingers on the fretboard aren’t really present between two different MIDI arrangements; at least, not in the same way. Some artists, like Burial, embrace the inherent coolness of electronic instruments to further their sonic investigation into loneliness and despair. Dan Snaith, as Caribou, has gone the other way and somehow imbued his electronic music with a sense of genuine warmth, as he ruminates on — and you may have been expecting this from the title — love. Love for his fans, for his family, for his wife, and for his new daughter. Opener “Can’t Do Without You” is neatly juxtaposed at the end by “Your Love Will Set You Free”: the first, an exploration of a love presumed lost; the latter, a love that Snaith can count on. This back-and-forth duelling-narrative element weaves itself through much of this record in a subtle and intriguing way that inspires effortless repeat listens.
Picks: Can’t Do Without You; Our Love; Your Love Will Set You Free
Do not adjust your dial: Here and Nowhere Else often does sound like it is being transmitted through a poor AM connection. It’s this lo-fi charm blended with post-hardcore delivery and pop catchiness that makes for one of the year’s best records. With its eight tracks clocking in at a neat 31 minutes, there’s very little room for waste or error, and it’s plain that the band is cognizant of that. But, though most of the songs on here are sub-four-minutes, there’s a wonderfully extended jam on “Pattern Walks”, elaborating on the band’s unique take on noisy, aggressive indie rock. It marks a departure from its predecessor in a number of ways — a new guitarist, and drums mixed really loud — but it’s just as catchy as ever, despite being way, way noisier. After seven breakneck songs, though, the album closer is tender, melancholic, and almost sweet. It’s a perfect end to a brilliant album.
Picks: No Thoughts, Pattern Walks, I’m Not Part Of Me
In his twenty year career, D‘Angelo has released a total of three records. That’s glacial by any standard, but his work has never been disappointing. His previous record, Voodoo, set the template and high watermark for all R&B that followed it, and Black Messiah will surely be no different. It has been in the works for something like ten years, and it shows: every drum line, every melody, every vocal, every harmony, and every sample feels honed to perfection, and simultaneously utterly effortless. There feels like more focus than ever on D’Angelo’s unique vocal style, with hints of Curtis Mayfield and George Clinton floating over largely-real instrumentation, including drums by ?uestlove. If this record has even a whiff of the impact that Voodoo did, expect plenty of D’Angelo’s contemporaries to ape his unique style, more or less. But savour this original moment. It feels more like an event than a simple album release.
Picks: 1000 Deaths; Really Love; Another Life
Every time I think Fucked Up couldn’t produce a more dense, orchestral version of hardcore, they turn up the dial just a little more, making the resulting sound just a little more powerful. One day, if they’re not absolutely careful, it will become claustrophobic; for now, though, it’s cinematic and melodic in a most unique way. Though each record they make now will be inevitably compared to The Chemistry of Common Life, I think that’s a little unfair. This is a completely different beast than both Chemistry and interim release “David Comes to Life”; it’s simultaneously less ambitious, in the sense that it’s not a rock opera drama, and more ambitious, in that it attempts to breathe fresh life into those clichés of youth and age. And I think it works. Featuring a brilliant collection of guest vocalists from Dinosaur Jr. and the Tragically Hip, Glass Boys tugs pretty hard at the nostalgia heartstrings without straying onto the cheesy side. It’s warm and folky, for a hardcore punk record, and I love it.
Picks: Warm Change; Paper the House; The Great Divide
There is no greater false hope than thinking the next Interpol album might actually be great. And yet here I am. Hoping.
I’m glad I stuck with my apparently false hope. After two fairly mediocre albums and the departure of original bassist Carlos Dengler, Interpol has reemerged as a tight three-piece, with an energy and vigor unseen since — dare I say it? — the Turn on the Bright Lights days. Yes, the album still occasionally falters — Everything Is Wrong is a bit of a slog — but the strongest songs on El Pintor sit right with the strongest songs the band has ever released. “Fuck the ancient ways,” indeed, but El Pintor doesn’t totally distance itself with the band’s formula. It’s an alluring balance between fresh energy and expected style.
Picks: All the Rage Back Home; My Blue Supreme; Tidal Wave.
Eight years ago, Jakob released the gorgeous Solace; after that, things got a little quiet. They still toured and played loads of shows, including opening for Tool for two of the band’s Australian tours, but a new record seemed elusive; or, at the very least, stuck in development hell. But, at long last, an album has emerged, and it’s amazing. It’s post rock as only Jakob know how to do it, complete with towering guitar lines, precise percussion, and warm bass lines. Yeah, it opens with the somewhat-predictable “Blind Them With Science”, but stick with it; it’s an adventure and a journey, and decidedly not much of a destination. I appreciate the band’s dedication to building an atmosphere over an easy end product: it feels explorative, not definitive.
Picks: Emergent; Harmonia; Resolve
It took just one song into seeing one of Kevin Drew’s live performances for me to really get this record. Despite my affinity for Canadian indie royalty by way of Broken Social Scene, et. al., I’m not that familiar with Drew’s solo output. To be fair (to me), he has just one prior solo record. But “Darlings” is a wonderful exercise in slow burning warm and fuzzy indie rock. It reminds me an awful lot of one of my all-time favourite records, “Know By Heart”, by the American Analog Set: it’s unobtrusive and quiet, yet somehow demands your attention to every note. It’s like a warm blanket and a mug of tea. There are lyrics, and I’m sure they’re very nice; they seem to speak to romance, sex, monogamy, and all sorts of hot topical. But this is a record about feel, more than anything, for me at least. And it feels really good.
Picks: Mexican After Show Party; You Gotta Feel It; And That’s All I Know
It’s generally hard for me to pick a “record of the year”. I tend to come up with a list of ten or fifteen albums that I really loved and will keep listening to in the years to come, but I can’t ever pick one that strikes me as the best. This year, though, Run the Jewels 2 easily took that crown. It has everything: a keen mix of social awareness and braggadocio over spectacular production, in a perfect back-and-forth style with moments of aggression and tenderness in harmony. It feels urgent and necessary, and very of-the-times. It’s a landmark kind of record, with guest contributions galore — including brilliant verses from Zack de la Rocha and Gangsta Boo, and a haunting chorus by Boots — mixing with El-P and Killer Mike’s exquisite duelling. I love this record.
Picks: Close Your Eyes (And Count To Fuck); Early; Love Again (Akinyele Back)
There’s a bit about halfway through “JM”, the song in the middle of the album, where you get the sense as a listener that Timothy Showalter has poured absolutely everything into this record. It certainly reads like it: as he was in the middle of recording the album, he had a near-death accident that markedly changed the tone of the songs. A bunch of songs were mixed to be huge — far bigger than any of his previous work, and seemingly written to lift the roofs off stadiums, not small clubs or bars. Yeah, there’s a little bit of cheese on this record, but so what? This is ambitious, haunting, and at times, deceivingly charming. It feels like Showalter is willing to bear all to, indeed, heal.
Picks: Shut In; JM; Wait For Love
After the tragic 2011 death of bassist Gerard Smith, TV on the Radio took a few years to grieve and regroup. Their first album as a reformed band, though without a full-time bassist, is a beautiful, disconcerting, yet oddly charming work. The attributes of a sound as distinctive as is TV on the Radio’s become more acute when paired with a subject as delicate and challenging as death, and all that comes with that. It’s not an instant classic in the way “Return to Cookie Mountain” was for me, and it does drag a little towards the middle, but it’s one hell of an impressive effort that improves with each listen.
Picks: Could You; Winter; Lazerray
I was eating dinner a few nights ago with a friend of mine who I haven’t seen for the better part of a decade1 and he pointed out that there’s something uniquely fascinating about a sub-30-minute record. Case in point: White Lung’s effort this year, flying by in less time than my daily commute, but packing a series of impressive punches along the way. In a year of seemingly nonstop degredation of women, as a whole, Deep Fantasy is a vital feminist voice, exploring its most pressing and necessary challenges. As with most great short-and-fast records, not a second of this album’s 22-minute running time feels wasted. Despite the aggressive delivery, though, there are plenty of catchy and, often, downright beautiful melodies to make this record feel more pop than it truly is. That’s nothing but a compliment, by the way.
Picks: Face Down; Just For You; In Your Home
There are plenty of records this year that I really enjoyed, but weren’t necessarily “favourites”, for whatever reason. Here’s a small selection.
- The Antlers — Familiars
- Beck — Morning Phase
- The Black Keys — Turn Blue
- Boots — WinterSpringSummerFall
- Dum Dum Girls — Too True
- FKA Twigs — LP1
- Grouper — Ruins
- How To Dress Well — “What Is This Heart?”
- Lana Del Rey — Ultraviolence
- Lykke Li — I Never Learn
- Neneh Cherry — Blank Project
- Parquet Courts — Sunbathing Animal
- Spoon — They Want My Soul
- St. Vincent — St. Vincent
- Swans — To Be Kind
- Tokyo Police Club — Forcefield
- Trophy Scars — Holy Vacants
- The War On Drugs — Lost in the Dream
The Worst Album of the Year
Last year, I proclaimed Jay Z’s “Magna Carta Holy Grail” to be the worst record of the year, on account of its genius creator getting lazy. This year, there’s an awful lot of choice.
By the criteria of last year’s “winner”, Pink Floyd’s “The Endless River” is an easy contender. I’m a huge Pink Floyd fan — let’s face it, who actively dislikes Pink Floyd? — but they’re clearly just trading on their name at this point. “The Endless River” was an insipid record that I had to force myself to slog through. There are remnants of past Floyd, with almost self-conscious instrumental references to the greatest albums of their long and impressive career, but there’s very little on this record that I seek to listen to again. It feels like an endless river. Of boring.
I should, in fact, pick truly terrible records for this coveted prize. Lil Wayne released an album in 2014 that contained a song called “Bitches Love Me”, which included this gem of a lyric:
She said “I never want to make you mad
I just want to make you proud”
I said “Baby just make me cum
Then don’t make a sound”
Apparently, nobody involved with this record’s production found anything wrong with this. I am beside myself. I defer to the Rap Critic on this one.
Nickelback decided that writing songs about drugs and sex and booze wasn’t enough any more, so they wrote a protest song:
Head high, protest line
Freedom scribbled on your spine
Headline, New York Times
Standing on the edge of a revolution
Hey, hey, just obey
Your secret’s safe with the NSA
In God we trust, or the CIA
Standing on the edge of a revolution
It is truly this century’s “Eve of Destruction”, if Barry Mcguire kept hitting his head on a concrete wall while being forced to fill in a counterculture Mad Lib.
Alas, this award must go to the sole artist capable of producing a bad record from the first whiff of it.
And that, of course, is U2.
U2 gets ragged on a lot these days. They haven’t released anything really good since “The Joshua Tree”, but they mostly remained inoffensive for the past couple of decades. That all changed with “Songs of Innocence”, which was pushed to every iTunes account on the planet for free. Why is that so bad? Well, allow me to quote myself, like some kind of asshole:
[A] music library is a deeply personal collection. It is the whole sum of your life’s soundtrack. It has songs that played while you were laughing with friends, crying alone, making out with your significant other, cooking, cleaning, falling asleep, waking up, working, walking, and so much more. As we are able to take increasing amounts of music everywhere with us, we are increasingly experiencing our lives alongside a soundtrack. Songs of Innocence is an unwelcome wart on my life’s soundtrack. It has inserted itself into my library near albums of far greater importance to me. It feels like a violation of something I cherish.
Was it the worst music I’ve heard all year? No. It’s like the wallpaper in a dentist’s office. But imagine your dentist showing up at your house and re-papering your living room to match their office. It’s deeply offensive purely because it’s so invasive. I blame U2 and Apple equally for this shitstorm. “Songs of Innocence” was the worst album of 2014.
If you’ve made it this far, congratulations! And thank you for reading. See you next year, hopefully when a list like this is more relevant. Like I wrote at the top, these are all affiliate links, so buying a couple of these albums will help support this site financially. If you think affiliate links are wrong — or that putting together a list like this is kind of a lazy way of making a few bucks even though, and I swear this is true, I am genuinely recommending all of these records — that’s fine: please buy the albums of your choice at your local independent record store.
If you’re reading this, hi Scott. ↥︎