Here are some albums from 2014 that I enjoyed in 2014. Ranking everything in one list would be arbitrary, so I didn’t. There’s a Spotify megamix containing some of the songs I mention, and some I don’t, here.
- Wild Beasts, “Present Tense”. Sleek and hermetically-sealed, this was the thinking man’s pop album of the year. It was less airy and ambient than its predecessor; more harsh and urbane (best exemplified by the opener, “Wanderlust”). And yet, at times (as on “Daughters”, a brooding highlight), frontmen Hayden Thorpe and Tom Fleming sounded much more fatherly than the lotharios they once were.
- Caribou, “Our Love”. Took the hallmarks of the club (check out the rave-up in the title-track) and planted them firmly at the dinner-table. Not before have adulthood and relationships been depicted through such softly warped dance music (or, in the case of “Silver”, violently warped). Get weird, get wired.
- Spoon, “They Want My Soul”. On which they turned surprisingly maximalist, with the assistance of Dave Fridmann. If ever they deserved a jump to the big stage, this was their manifesto, complete with shape-shifting Bowie-aping (“Knock Knock Knock”) and square-jawed rawk (“Rent I Pay”).
- Mac DeMarco, “Salad Days”. Guitars that sound like dank-haired slackers reclining on yachts (“Blue Boy”). Retro keys imparting greater depth to the koans the man born Vernor Winfield McBriare Smith IV finds at the bottom of his drawer (“Chamber Of Reflection”). Moments of tenderness one would not expect from the man whose onstage antics got him in trouble with his mum.
- Real Estate, “Atlas”. A radiant example of how to expand one’s staple sound, still remaining rooted to the suburbs, but now with the cautious gaze of a parent. On “How Might I Live”, they sounded downright swampy; elsewhere, they preferred an aesthetic that recalled the places the Mad Men commuted from, as on the centrepiece, “The Bend”.
- St. Vincent, “St. Vincent”. Not as singular, and therefore not as great, as Strange Mercy, this was a grab-bag of styles that showed off every ruthless skill Annie Clark possesses, from the mutant funk guitar-shredding on “Birth In Reverse” to the ambiguous balladeer evinced on “I Prefer Your Love” and “Prince Johnny”.
- TV On The Radio, “Seeds”. A band still in love with the elemental howl of the guitar returned after years of absence, with a collection of natty phrases, throwbacks to the time they still lived in a Williamsburg loft, and mind-expanding sonics that pushed the boundaries of the studio.
- Sinkane, “Mean Love”. Like Marvin Gaye without the social commentary, and then turning on a sixpence to resemble a beach-combing troubadour—Ahmed Gallab could be accused of dilettantism. But then you spend some time luxuriating in his DFA-enhanced grooves and give him the benefit of the doubt. Next time, he really ought to lose the lap-steel (see “Galley Boys”), though, and concentrate on the humid, pregnant soul he excels at (as on the sultry “Hold Tight”).
- Swans, “To Be Kind”. At times, this was the most brutal and beatless music I enjoyed this year (for example, the most gut-churning moments on the 34-minute long “Bring The Sun/Toussaint L’Ouverture”). Michael Gira and his acolytes exploit the double-length format to push wall-to-wall noise and concept at the listener in an often-punishing fashion. But the striking thing was that, at other times, this album provided some of the most groove-based, body-writhing music of the year—as on the Southern Fried stomp of “A Little God In My Hands”, and the pummelling cut-and-thrust of “Oxygen”. The joy was in experiencing both sides of the visceral, and in realising this was a higher form of art.
- Shellac, “Dude Incredible”. This time is different. The punk is more political; the guitars, more like groaning slabs of meat; the narrative obsessions, more weird. From mating rituals to Founding Fathers, Steve Albini dislikes it all, and he’s not afraid to run the gamut between unhinged cawing and deranged barbershop to expound. The in-the-pocket-rocket rhythms from Todd Trainer and Bob Weston IV, meanwhile, are as loping and punishing as you’d imagine. After 1000 Hurts, this may be the next most essential Shellac album.
- Run The Jewels, “Run The Jewels 2”. In light of Ferguson et al, this took on more urgent vitality. Nasty and brutish and hyperliterate, RTJ2 sees El-P and Killer Mike spit politicised, entirely justified bile atop overloaded, sugar-coated beats. Their outfit’s name becomes a clarion call, a mantra. On “Close Your Eyes (And Count To Fuck)”, Zack de la Rocha intones it around and around, while El-P admits of another phrase, “I listened, tatted the sentence on my dick last summer / Now I’ll never get that phrase off my brain, it’s no wonder”. Fans will say the same of ‘Run The Jewels’.
- Aphex Twin, “Syro”. Sometimes it’s not about moving the monologue into groundbreaking territory. Sometimes it’s about having a dialogue with the scene you helped create. The ‘comeback’ album from Richard D. James felt like that dialogue. Sanitised jungle met timestretched vocals met wonky Christmas music, and it all sounded rather more human than we might have expected or feared. But it did go on a bit.
- Total Control, “Typical System”. Militaristic post-punk shot through with a current of nihilistic dread. Total Control take the forms and fancies of 1980s synth-pop and fill them with grim manifestos. Gently, the songs blossom and then deflate. At other times, the punk is unaltered by electronics, and the songs thrash about like a teen age riot (as on the stomping “Systematic Fuck”). The overall effect is not dissimilar to that of The Horrors on Primary Colours, albeit that Dan Stewart is a more nuanced philosopher than Faris Badwan.
- Liars, “Mess”. In a career of distressing and uncomfortable music, Liars have never sought to reassure. On their latest, among the shocks on offer are: synths that threaten to swallow you up like a vacuum cleaner; death-disco that sounds like A Certain Ratio on Valium; and vocals and lyrics from Angus Andrew that are suitably vague and demented as to refer each listener’s specific fears located at the nub of one’s brain. Inexplicably, this is also an exceptionally ‘fun’ album. Proceed with caution.
- Flying Lotus, “You’re Dead!”. After the birth and the birthplace, the universe and the subconscious, Steven Ellison followed his life to its logical conclusion. This collection of ruminations on death effortlessly spans jazz (with the virtuosic leanings of “Tesla” and “Moment of Hesitation”) and avant-garde rap (as on the Purple Drank-altered “Dead Man’s Tetris” and “The Boys Who Died In Their Sleep”). It also boasts some of the finest FlyLo concoctions that refuse to be pigeonholed—the shape-shifting “Never Catch Me”; the weightless kiss-in-the-rain of “Coronus, The Terminator”. Against all odds, this face-smash of disparate emotions and textures collided into a masterpiece.
- D’Angelo, “Black Messiah”. Pace Darren Wilson, pace Daniel Pantaleo, 2014 suggested that the answer to Gil Scott-Heron’s “Who will survive in America?” is no certainty. Hence the rush-release of D’Angelo’s comeback, which even when it wafted into big-band-jazz-hand territory was a terrifying reflection on police brutality and the quest for equality. And for every “Another Life” there was also a “1000 Deaths”, frenetic and humid and a total non sequitur. Between Michael Eugene Archer’s peerless voice and fretwork, and Questlove’s J Dilla-honouring production, they served up a worthy successor to the magnum opuses of Prince and Sly Stone. In 2014, in America, there was a riot goin’ on, and D’Angelo gave it a soundtrack. Where Yeezus had focused on the cult of personality, and good kid, m.A.A.d city had depicted a society with filmic beauty, Black Messiah connected the dots and used its titular phrase to describe the unity of the crowd rather than one man.
- The Juan Maclean, “In A Dream”. If, in 2014, you wanted a solid collection of dancefloor-occupying music that sits at the sweet-spot of 1980s house affectations, this was it. Even the occasional jarring appearance of John Maclean at the microphone (as on “Love Stops Here”) could not detract from the overwhelming sense that Nancy Whang had found her home. It all came together on “A Simple Design”, for my money one of the year’s best songs, and pretty much the musical embodiment of that NYC-skyline tattoo Whang sports around her bicep.
- The War On Drugs, “Lost In The Dream”. Springsteen meets the Spacemen 3, in a fog of nuzzling, smeary synths, blearily strummed acoustic guitars, and Adam Granduciel’s romanticisation of falling apart. Not as good as some critics claimed, perhaps because every track chugs along at the same tempo, ultimately blending into one tidal wave of heartbreak and shoegaze. Thank goodness it got punctured in the heart by the less torpid swagger of “An Ocean In Between The Waves”.
- Shabazz Palaces, “Lese Majesty”. Protest music insisted upon being heard in 2014. The second album from the partnership of Ishmael Butler and Tendai Maraire was protesting at all kinds of things: the hip-hop hierarchy; the social hierarchy; the customary forms and expectations of music. Sometimes it was hard to make out the message through the space-age stylings, which defied categorisation and shifted the landscape of electronic music just like its predecessor. But this felt like real important music—even if it takes another year to fully decode and digest.
- FKA Twigs, “LP 1”. The hype was almost justified. In between the icy slabs of noise and the brazen sexuality was the vaguest semblance of a heart. If you looked past the inhumanity of it all, this was a thrilling exploration of lust in this club, with obsessive production from Arca et al making sure it was totally sui generis. At its heart was a puzzling, infuriating contradiction: music at once airless and celestial.
Finally, as is customary, here is my pledge to listen to the following purported masterpieces I didn’t get round to hearing in 2014:
- Sun Kil Moon, “Benji”;
- Grouper, “Ruins”;
- Andy Stott, “Faith In Strangers”;
- Dean Blunt, “Black Metal”;
- Sharon Van Etten, “Are We There”.