The Best BEST Music of 2014, According To Me
I know what most of you are thinking. Or at least I think I do. Because, for me personally, mid-December always knocks my life off-kilter in reminding me how many nights I was probably idly watching reruns of In Living Color and blithely feeling the year race by like a freight train. So, if you’re like me, you’re probably thinking, “I can’t believe 2014 is nearly over,” to which I would respond with an empathetic “I know right?” But the best part of the year’s end, besides the collective sigh of relief the nation heaves in anticipation of a week-ish-long break from work and school, is being able to catalog your favorite media to prove how culturally relevant you were for the past twelve months. And this fella did just that!
2014, while not without if even rife with political and environmental fiascos, was a pretty explosive year, musically. A lot of the staid, gloomy seriousness of 2013 seems to have burst, giving way to a more colorful, yet vigorously intense catalog of record releases. And while the spooky ambient-ness of it all is completely in my wheelhouse, I welcome the wild yet personal side that a lot of musicians this year seemed to give us.
With releases like Beyoncé, which technically came out December of last year to be fair, 1989, Pom Pom and Ultraviolence, amongst others, there was a sense that a lot of artists were hacking into a deeper understanding of themselves. A “back to basics” of songwriting that proved pretty interesting. So, without any further bloated broad generalizations, let’s see what releases really kept this guy occupied in 2014.
Sometimes, music doesn’t have to be especially personal or cerebral to effect you, so long as it provides a visceral, toe-tappin’ rhythm that makes you want to sweat and do poppers in a trashy beer-and-wine-only bar. And with the above rigamarole about how personal the music of 2014 was out of the way, even I have to admit that the pounding of the opening bars of “Mask Maker,” Mess‘ first track, was enough to sell this listener. Hard. While conceptually Mess was essentially pretty simple, it did absolutely everything I wish Liars had done with their previous release, WIXIW, and with the utmost confidence and spunk. As the band further experiments with electronic music, they’ve ditched the pared down, “let’s take Xanax and do some graphic design” side of it and really pushed it to the nth degree here. And with fairly basic (I’m assuming analogue) equipment, Liars have created an incredibly rich, layered, colorful and downright listenable album here. There’s a sense that every single creative impulse was explored indiscriminately in this record, and in a way that does produce a few rough edges, but the end result is a messy (duh), crazy and often spooky good time.
2. Run the Jewels — Run the Jewels 2
Before a few months ago, I had never heard of Run the Jewels, El-P, or even Killer Mike. So when I fist listened to Run the Jewels 2, in the most unadulterated away, I was f**king blown away. My first thought was, “this is what hip-hop should have been about all along.” What makes this record so amazing, besides the hypnotic beats and arrangements, is the sense that these eleven tracks have a purpose. Run the Jewels aren’t just exploiting a lifestyle or swaggering with a gratuitous attitude, there’s a point, a thrust and a meaning to these songs. These boys don’t have time to waste making “another hip hop record,” they have a point of view and they want to share it. And like Liars, Run the Jewels are able to take simple musical raw materials and make it sound BIG. When Run the Jewels 2 wraps up with the staggering “Angel Duster”, it feels like you went on a journey and back. And you feel like a better informed citizen because of it.
3. Lana Del Rey — Ultraviolence
Feel free to roll your eyes at this one. I know Lana is an extremely polarizing figure, but I can’t help but admit that I really drank the Kool-Aid when it comes to her. While it’s been argued that Lana is seemingly ungenuine in her hyper-effected, stylized character(s) she embodies, a point I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with, I would also argue that the persona she’s rendered for herself is so specific and so compelling, that being genuine is almost beside the point. Musically, I think Lana is able to take very very simple structures (which is apparently a theme in my tastes) and make songs that are just plain beautiful and emotive. While her breakout record, Born to Die, featured some genuinely stupid songs nestled amongst really wonderful hits, Ultraviolence really refines her style, largely I think because of Dan Auerbach’s (Black Keys frontman) influence. Her catalog may be ceaselessly moody and often depressing, but her point of view is beautiful, haunting, and even a little moving. Lana herself may be a bit of a caricature sometimes, but one that’s pretty well done.
“When I trust you, we can do it with the lights on” may have been my favorite line of any song in 2014. FKA Twigs seemed to pop up a bit out of nowhere earlier this year, sneaking under the radar (at least my own) before exploding onto the scene with this delicate yet dynamic collection. The spooky, trip-hoppy R&B game really made great strides in the past year or two, so not only is FKA Twigs incredibly talented but also very timely. What’s remarkable about LP1 is not just how effortlessly its songs hang on her every intimate whisper, but how subtly creative the music is. Any female singer/songwriter can lay a beat and a few synth chords, but FKA Twigs is able to find very interesting details and nooks within her melodies to decorate, and I dig it. This is music you feel, not music you listen to.
Awwww, remember 2009/10 when adorable, lo-fi indiepop held the reins of independent music? Good times. While there’ll always be a market for cute, three-chord guitar pop, not many have been doing especially well lately (barring, say, Veronica Falls). And then some Canadians decided to go all Slumberland on our asses and release this fantastic eponymous album, Alvvays. This is a group of people who understand that there’s really no need to reinvent the wheel to make something great. The songs here have some of the tastiest hooks and swoon-worthy melodies around, but all with a hidden vulnerability lying beneath. Alvvays didn’t break new grounds in music-making, but brought a refreshing realness to indie rock, with a simple, honest, and lovely statement of an album. And with great replay value, this gem really shines bright amongst its other, more generic counterparts.
6. Have A Nice Life — The Unnatural World
Never has so much doom and gloom felt so tastefully contained. The music that unfurls between the haze and static on The Unnatural World is actually pretty beautiful. And there were some very judicious choices in the production that kept this album from ever feeling bloated, chaotic or inaccessible. Generally, this one is just a pretty good time for a band of its genre.
7. The Soft Pink Truth — Why Do The Heathens Rage?
If someone had asked me if I was interested in hearing a collection of tongue-in-cheek, house covers of old metal songs, I’d come back with a resounding “f**k yes!” Why Do The Heathens Rage? has a pretty sweet elevator pitch. And every alt-queer music nerd in the country has subsequently let out a squeal of ecstasy after first contact with it, I’m assuming. The genre bending of it all here feels very well-realized and fresh, and quite frankly, lends to a really fun record. There may be gullies of silliness here, with very subtle Michael Sembello/Rihanna samples, but the end result of this project, helmed by Matmos member Drew Daniel, is a party.
Carla Bozulich, the whiskey-soaked, LA-based musician, produced a really powerful album in 2014: Boy. Using what sounds like rusty, almost off-tuned interments, she crafted a vexing, soulful tribute to Patti Smith (unofficially, obviously). The poetic rhythm and immediateness of Bozulich’s voice, paired with her raw disregard for status quo, leaves us with an intense, stark but oddly refreshing piece of work. Like taking a bath in mud. However unpleasant the music on Boy has the ability to be, it’s nothing if not effective. When finished with this album, you’re still dripping with it for days after. And it’s pretty remarkable.
Oh, Ariel. Up to your old hijinx again, I see. Having ditched the “…’s Haunted Graffiti,” Mr. Pink has gone back to his roots on Pom Pom. Without the tiresome hitch of, you know, other people, he has curated a celebration of life, and being weird, and being yourself, and feeling like that’s okay. And frankly, as far far as I’m concerned, that is okay. You won’t find anything Shakespearean about Pom Pom, but what you will find is a dude with his own language and who has a great time speaking it. If you keep expectations low, you might just have a blast getting lost in the translation.
It’s hard sometimes to breathe new life into ambient music, which by nature has very little going on (ostensibly). But with Ben Frost’s album, A U R O R A, there’s a stark sense that he’s brought something new to the table. Ben Frost’s DIY-sounding songwriting really works to create hyper-evocative music. With beats that sound like they’re being banged on sidewalk pavement, and instrumentation that sounds sharp, dangerous and industrial, the effect of it all is cinematic in scope. Like wandering around a dimly-lit construction site during a rainstorm. Where a cyborg is chasing you, maybe?
As winter approaches, and pummels the west coast with rain and hail and thunder, Clark has given us the perfect album for Winter. It’s expansive, immersive and suits a stormy day like nothing else in 2014.
12. Azealia Banks — Broke With Expensive Taste
With what is apparently her first full-length release, Azealia Banks has delivered a surprisingly largely understated, rhythmic package with Broke with Expensive Taste. Not only does she showcase the breadth of her songwriting styles, but also really shows off her singing chops. And the whole thing is damn sleek and sexy.
13. Pharmakon — Bestial Burden
If I had a nickel for every time I’ve been forced to sit through a blond woman screaming for 45 minutes I’d be able to…kidding. Pharmakon fascinates me. Her music and artistic persona somehow wickedly intense but still very listenable. She makes doom pretty chill.
Actress, who I know very little about, have made total art gallery-opening music with Ghettoville in the absolute best way possible.
“Beggin For Thread”? Beggin for more Banks is more like it. This other LA-based seductress didn’t shatter any previous expectations in the genre, but made some really sexy, catchy, moody songs in Goddess. It didn’t subvert, but it worked.