Essential Top 20: The best albums of 2014
In music, 2014 was a year mostly defined by the past. 90s superstars Aphex Twin and D'Angelo reemerged after spending the better part of the 21st century in hiding, and surprised everyone with their renewed vitality. Madlib, Killer Mike and El-P recaptured the furious energy of their youth and reminded a resurgent underground hip hop scene that there's life in the old dogs yet. The War on Drugs wrote the best Springsteen album since the 80s. The Men, Parquet Courts and Ariel Pink mined 50 years of music history to inform their modern brand of grubby-kneed rock.
But even as retromania tightens its iron grip on music culture, the artform as a whole continues to push ever outwards into the brave new world of the future. Rappers in their early 20s like Young Thug, milo, Isaiah Rashad and YG have staked their claim to the hip hop mantle, bringing with them a healthy disregard for the genre's past. Flying Lotus, St. Vincent and FKA twigs took popular music to places darker and more dramatic than it has ever been. Sia wanted no part of any of it, floating away from the mainstream in a bubble of her own emotions.
It's been a maddeningly wonderful year for music, the sheer breadth of it all enough to make your head spin. Here, as voted by The Essential's contributors, are the best albums of 2014.
St. Vincent — St. Vincent
This year, the silver-haired shred queen St. Vincent confirmed her status as a songwriting goddess and all-round critical darling with her delightfully eccentric self-titled fourth album. Steeped in the kind of funky technical fuckery that’d make her pal David Byrne proud, St. Vincent is a colourful set of digital disdain, sincere rumination and hilarious punchlines. Without question one of the most joyously personal albums of the year (where mundane pastimes like taking out the rubbish and masturbation even get a mention), this stellar release from the queen of art-pop fared well on many critics’ end-of-year polls, and with very good reason. Ash Beks
Aphex Twin — Syro
Nobody, and I mean nobody, could have predicted a new Aphex Twin album in 2014. The grand prankster of electronic music in the 1990s seemed to disappear off the face of the Earth in 2001, or at least his moniker did, leaving in his wake a whole generation of electronic artists and composers struggling to catch up with the calamity Richard D. James let loose upon the world.
Who better, then, to show them how it’s done than the man himself, and with the 13-years-in-the-making Syro, it’s obvious that James hasn’t skipped a beat. An elated, beautiful, cryptic record, Syro is the compilation of years of perfectionist tendencies. A clusterfuck of software wizardry, compositional disharmony and exquisite emotional explorations, Syro is the album we’ve all been waiting for and then some. Simon Di Berardino
Shabazz Palaces — Lese Majesty
With their debut album Black Up, cosmic hip hop duo Shabazz Palaces projected their politics onto the night sky. With their intensely spiritual follow up Lese Majesty (a reference to Lèse-majesté, the act of committing an offence against a state or sovereignty), Shabazz Palaces break through the stratosphere and aim for the stars, taking all of the baggage that accompanies the culture of hip hop and black America with them. Unafraid to push the boundaries and embrace their spiritual side, Shabazz Palaces turn expressionists as they render their rhymes into minimalist electronic compositions that strive for ascension above all. Your best bet is to strap on some headphones and take the journey with them; it will be one you’ll hardly ever forget. SD
Mac DeMarco — Salad Days
Slacker bro Mac DeMarco emerged with his most polished, refined and mature album this year, outstretching expectations and shying ever so slightly from the party animal image. Salad Days features some of DeMarco’s most skilled songwriting to date, moving beyond simplistic lo-fi indie pop into wider terrain, employing synthesisers, grown-up lyrics and high production values, spreading his sound to a wider audience. But he certainly hasn’t gone all Ryan Adams on us, and as a number of tracks from Salad Days and his extremely zany high-profile year proved, Maccy still knows how to have fun. AB
Cloud Nothings — Here and Nowhere Else
Here and Nowhere Else is a perfect distillation of the ideas Cloud Nothings have been developing for years: the present, despite what we might like to think, is merely an echo of the past, and we can try to convince ourselves that we’re capable of truly original thought but real enlightenment is to understand that everything is a remix. Rather than act as slaves to what has come before — an inherently inauthentic exercise — Cloud Nothings embrace their position at one end of a long string of cultural repetition.
To know where you are you have to know where you’ve been, and few interrogate where we’ve been as deeply and with as much purpose as Cloud Nothings. Bradley J. Dixon
Todd Terje — It’s Album Time!
Take Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories and add a teaspoon of extra funk and focus and you’ve got It’s Album Time! Norwegian-born DJ Todd Terje’s debut record is perhaps the most danceable thing released all year, an instant dance floor magnet that also happens to be just as enjoyable in a quiet room alone. Terje’s jokey attitude only helps to further the record’s insatiable appetite for fun, as he takes numerous leaves out of George Clinton’s bible of funk, except instead of guitars Terje adopts the artificial rubber of electro-instrumentation. While the sounds might be different, the principle is the same: have a good time all the time. Give It’s Album Time! a spin. See if you can resist. SD
Isaiah Rashad — Cilvia Demo
The newest addition to Los Angeles’ premier hip hop roster Top Dawg Entertainment, Isaiah Rashad, a young man from Chattanooga, Tennessee, instantly shot to the top of many people’s favourite rappers list with his debut record Cilvia Demo. Taking cues from his label mates Kendrick Lamar and Ab-Soul, but also dipping his toes in the Southern stylings of Master P and Big K.R.I.T., Rashad proves himself more than capable of keeping up with his contemporaries, maintaining a series of clear-headed street parables and personal, emotional recollections all delivered with a sly, silver tongue. As a debut project Cilvia Demo is extraordinary, and yet, with the promise of things still to come, Cilvia Demo starts to resemble Kendrick’s Section.80, a most exciting comparison to consider. SD
Total Control — Typical System
Australian quintet Total Control effectively manipulate the typically Melburnian garage-rock sound to rise well above the plethora of similar-sounding Australian bands. Formed from the fusing of no-wave synthesisers with snarling, Stooges-esque punk, Typical System further cements the band as one of the most reckless and interesting bands of the Australian garage-rock revival. Furthering that intrigue, front man Dan Stewart (also of UV Race fame) crafts ferocious, politically infused poetry perfectly channeling the anger and disappointment of Australia’s youth following the 2013 election. AB
Lana Del Rey — Ultraviolence
Ultraviolence has no real mainstream precedent. It’s a tortured, achingly beautiful, often alarmingly submissive record – and that’s the point. No one hates Lana Del Rey more than Lana Del Rey herself. You’ll know within seconds if you’ve enough self-loathing to embrace hers. To love this record requires total emotional submission. But the more its beauty draws you in, the more you realise how troubling it was all along. Richard S. He
Future — Honest
Conviction is everything on Honest. Future’s influential triplet flow delivers some of the year’s most cringe-worthy lines with astonishing truthfulness and integrity, encouraging even the most prudish listener to fist-pump and holler along to these undeniably ear-wormy bangers and ballads.
Joined by the crème de la crème of modern hip hop (Drake, Kanye, Pharrell, André 3000), Honest is crammed with potential singles, each seemingly better than the last (with the exception of “Move That Dope”, clearly the album’s highlight and simply one of the best tracks of the year). With heady trap beats executively produced by Mike WILL Made It (one of the most important beat-makers of modern hip hop), Honest sounds hungry and exciting and is a likely exemplar of what the forthcoming years of hip hop will sound like. AB
Ty Segall — Manipulator
As retro culture moves out of the electronic, synth-soaked earnestness of the 80s and into the ripped jeans and fuck-you attitude of the 90s, guitar music finds itself at the vanguard of cool once again, thanks in no small part to the incomprehensibly prolific Ty Segall. After releasing four albums in 14 months through 2011-13, it took him 14 months to work on Manipulator alone, and the result is an album that, according to The Essential’s Luke Lewis, “drops enough glam garage rock you’ll think Marc Bolan has risen again”. Brimming with raw psychedelic power, Manipulator is an unashamedly irreverent antidote to the self-seriousness infecting much of 21st century popular music. BJD
Swans — To Be Kind
How does a band follow up such a monolithic achievement as Swans’ 2012 masterwork The Seer? Follow it up with another, of course. Taking the brutal blueprint of their previous record, noise rock giants Swans hit a hat trick since their return to the musical fold back in 2009 with To Be Kind, a sprawling, dizzying and terrifying assault of the senses that only Swans could achieve.
Transcendence through tone and repetition is their agenda, and from beginning to end To Be Kind delivers on that premise. A two-hour journey into the twisted mind of front man Michael Gira, To Be Kind is as big as the universe and as complex as an atom. Sure it’s tough to get through at times, but suffering builds character, a fact that Swans are seemingly all too aware of. SD
Sia — 1,000 Forms of Fear
Peaking at #1 both locally and in the Unites States, for someone who seems to want absolutely no part of the pop star life Sia is going about it all wrong. Never one to follow the prescribed path for a female pop artist, her sixth album is an emphatic, anthemic and often triumphant exploration of the darker side of success, fame, addiction and loss. Obfuscating herself not just as a performer on the album but also during its promotion (including some controversial video concepts), the songwriter breathes life and soul into her creations as an unseen but all-powerful deity of pure emotion. BJD
Freddie Gibbs & Madlib — Piñata
That Freddie Gibbs flow, all liquid and hellishly fast, helped satisfy the stratospheric expectations surrounding Piñata, his collaborative release with beat-king Madlib. Throughout this abundant record (60 minutes long!), the pair compliment and work off each other surprisingly well. Madlib’s scratchy staccato grooves provide just enough dust and filth for Gibbs to spit his gritty tales of peddling, drug dealing and sex. Ooooooh so smooth and accomplished, Piñata provides the perfect soundtrack for a kush-riddled summer pool party or top-down laps gawking at women along beachfront boulevards. AB
Real Estate — Atlas
Drenched in guitar lines crisper than a chilled cider on a hot summer’s day, Real Estate’s third record Atlas provided 2014’s best soundtrack to the warmer months. The reverb-laden pop songs, each boasting the finesse of a lead single, are breezy yet sophisticated, encouraging satisfying background and foreground listening. Also considerably more mature than their stoner-slacker prior output, Atlas is an accomplished record from a band always increasing their craft, dealing with the burden of ageing in an incredibly honest and straightforward manner. AB
Caribou — Our Love
Not one to temper his own ambition, Dan Snaith tackles the concept of love in all its depth and breadth in his rich, kaleidoscopic sixth album. But its brilliance rests not just on its theme but also the manner in which Snaith confronts it: head-on, clear eyed and with a journalistic instinct to burrow beneath the surface and truly reach the core of what makes his heart tick. Underneath the glitchy, artificial, electronic sound, ultimately what shines through is humanity. BJD
Sun Kil Moon — Benji
Throughout the course of 2014 it became harder and harder to recall the devastating impact of Sun Kil Moon’s Benji, mostly due to songwriter and performer Mark Kozelek’s bitter and immature entanglement with other 2014 favourite The War on Drugs. All it takes though is a single revisitation of the year’s most heartbreaking and cathartic album and the stupidity of Kozelek’s public persona easily melts away. Benji is perhaps the greatest musical treatise on death and suffering ever laid down on track, a rambling yet searing collection of songs that displays Kozelek’s struggle to deal with life itself, particularly when an individual is robbed of it. Irony, coincidence and confusion are at the heart of Benji, a towering piece of folk art from one of music’s most conflicting characters. SD
The War on Drugs — Lost in a Dream
The War on Drugs had one hell of a 2014. Topping many critics’ end-of-year lists, Lost in a Dream showcases a logical progression and maturity from a band boasting some of the biggest and most glorious psychedelia of recent memory. Combining Adam Granduciel’s alt-country, AM rock with the sweeping soundscapes provided by a million layers of synth, strings, horns and guitar, the band established a massive spectrum of sound reminiscent of classic sonic masterpieces like George Harrison’s All Things Must Past or even My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless. Forever moving forward like a road-trip to nowhere or a fast-flowing river, Lost in a Dream constantly progresses, maintaining accessibility through sensible songwriting and integrity through ingenious musicianship. AB
Ariel Pink — pom pom
Love him or hate him (or both!), there is no denying the skill and finesse of which Ariel Pink delivered his magnum-opus pom pom – one of the most fascinating and discussed releases of 2014. Free from the shackles of The Haunted Graffiti, Pink’s first solo release in almost a decade finds the already obtuse artist pushing himself (and his audience) further into the ethers of his unhinged and deranged mind. Searching the deep and dirty trenches of forgotten music for inspiration, Pink restlessly redefines neglected sounds into something modern audiences can grasp and manage, resulting in an album equally accessible and unreachable. There is no use attempting to understand the thinking behind this artists’ bat-shit insane ideas (of which “Dinosaur Carebears” is the best example); we must simply sit back and let the madness wash over until it consumes and we become lost in Pink’s psychedelic and nightmarish non-reality. AB
Run the Jewels — Run the Jewels 2
Rap is a uniquely young person’s game, but in an era where generation Y rappers (most barely out of school) rule the increasingly competitive genre — inventing new styles and flows on the regular — it brings joy and excitement to see veterans El-P and Killer Mike storm in and release one of the fiercest hip hop albums post-good kid.
Killer Mike will henceforth be known as the best rapper in the game, combining spitfire flow with intelligent lyricism and storytelling, and managing to shoot at least three of the top five rap verses of the year throughout Run the Jewels 2. Similarly, El-P improved his already flawless production, adding layers upon layers of noise to RTJ2, cluttering the release with fuck-off beats, psychedelic soundscapes, bleeps and buzzes. Most other rappers in the game are now reduced to fuckboys and must drastically improve their skill before commencing any projects in 2015. AB