Top 10 Albums of 2014

2014 saw highs in rap, punk and R&B, but what did we think were the best albums of the year?

2014 started off slow; a simmering scene of indie bands released albums in the early months, but there wasn’t anything surprising or huge early on (save our #1 pick). But as the year drove on, we started to run the gambit in releases. There were noteworthy releases all across the board, from Run the Jewels to Tom Petty. We had a number of impressive debut albums, from Perfect Pussy to FKA Twigs to Tinashe. Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea surprisingly took the radio world by storm, despite falling back on subpar records. Taylor Swift finally went full-on pop, in a beautiful mess of an album. A fully reunited Wu-Tang Clan couldn’t produce at the same quality of their past; neither could a partial Pink Floyd. A number of stalwarts came out of hiding – Springsteen released a compilation that was admittedly better than most of the year’s other releases, AC/DC finally qualified their music with Phil Rudd’s charges, Prince released one great, and one crappy album, Aphex Twin was (almost) as weird as ever, Tom Petty released one of his best in a long time, and U2 continued a downward trend with one of the biggest, and biggest disasters of an album release ever. White Lung, the Menzingers and Parquet Courts led the parade in a year of tremendous punk albums. Pharrell paid his dues for Blurred Lines with his successful feminist album “G I R L,” and Robin Thicke paid his dues by failing to meet the lowest of sales expectations, especially in Australia. All in all, it’s been a big year, so charting the year’s best has been difficult. But here’s what we felt were the 10 very best of 2014:

#10. Azealia Banks – “Broke With Expensive Taste”

Banks has had an up and down two years. The success of her early EP’s and singles made her a breakout hit in 2012, but mangled deals with Interscope led to her debut album being periodically delayed. In the meantime, she added bullet points to her resume, highs and lows. She started a great beef with Igloo Australia (Iggy Azalea, absent from this list), but also dissed Disclosure and made some homophobic comments towards Perez Hilton. In the midst of all of this, she settled the deal with her label and suddenly, unexpectedly dropped her proper debut. She doesn’t align herself to any one genre of music, instead throwing things at a canvas like an R&B Jackson Pollock. Not of all it sticks, but the parts that do confound with how easily Banks can meld genres. Banks is one of the few true Renaissance people in sung/rap collabos, handling both herself with equal dexterity. Best track: “Ice Princess”

#9. Beck – “Morning Phase”

Like Terminator 2, Before Sunset, Empire Strikes Back, “Morning Phase” is a rare sequel that takes its source material and improves upon it. Although Beck’s 2002 post-break-up album “Sea Change” was critically revered, I’ve personally always found it too gloomy, too self-involved. So, twelve years later, to hear a more optimistic follow-up is a pleasant surprise. You never really know what you’re going to get with Beck – in between these two albums came “E-Pro,” “Timebomb,” and “Nausea.” But this album takes the acoustic, Sunday morning vibe of “Sea Change” – complete with many of the same musicians – and flips it on it’s head, with cautiously optimistic tunes, like Beck’s been faking it since ’02 and is just now actually ready to join the real world. “I’m tired of being alone” permeates lead single “Blue Moon,” and we believe he is. It’s an awakening for Beck, like a morning sunrise. Ironically, the album’s best song is the haunting and minimalist midpoint, “Wave,” but it’s an anomaly on the album.

#8. Parquet Courts – “Sunbathing Animal”

Brooklyn’s indie-punk darlings forced their way on to a lot of ’13 Best-Of lists with their non-stop “Light Up Gold” album, but the question that that album posed was – how do they follow it up? By turning everything completely around. On “Light Up Gold,” they created a simple formula, that almost every song followed. On this album, they explore every corner they can. From jazzy, hyper singalongs like “Ducking & Dodging” to seven minute jams like “Instant Disassembly” to riotous songs with deceivingly downtrodden lyrics, like the title track, the band leaps over just about every influence they can. The record is still distinctly punk – but it’s about an umbrella term as possible. Each song flows into the next with sudden, jarring surprise. It’s the exact album we didn’t expect from Parquet Courts, and it’s one of the best because of it. Best track: “Sunbathing Animal”

#7. White Lung – “Deep Fantasy”

The pure intensity of Canada’s White Lung has led them from being a Band to Watch, to a band to watch out for. “Deep Fantasy” is one of the year’s most intense records, a raging mix of hardcore punk and thrash. The album is ten songs, 22 minutes, and brutal from start to finish. With no solos or breakdowns, the only break the listener gets is a quick one on the bass intro to “Face Down.” The guitar shrieks on every track, with high-neck rhythms working against the heavy, low bass and drums. And Mish Way’s lyrics alternate between feminism and existential violence, all spoke-sung in her confident shrill. It’s all a commanding, whirlwind, severe assault. Best track: “Drown with the Monster.”

#6. Against Me! – “Transgender Dysphoria Blues”

Against Me!’s previous album, 2010’s “White Crosses,” was a disaster of maturity. The band was aging, openly acknowledging that they weren’t what they used to be. So they needed a refresher, but not many people expected it in the form of frontman Tom Gabel coming out and choosing to live as Laura Jane Grace. With a new identity, and practically a new line-up, Against Me! hit the level of ferocity that hadn’t been matched since 2002’s “Reinventing Axel Rose.” This album has some low points, sure, but the typical “throw everything at the wall” tactic works for them here – Grace is more self-aware than ever, and the songs hit a peak in violence that they’ve never hit before. With song titles like “FUCKMYLIFE666” and “Osama Bin Laden as the Crucified Christ,” we know we’re in for a wild ride. Although not one of the best albums of the year, it’s certainly the most important. Best track: “True Trans Soul Rebel”

#5. The Black Keys – “Turn Blue”

It’s safe to say that the Black Keys didn’t handle fame all that well. Although commercially successful, their previous two albums suffered – “Brothers,” from too many murky, swampy, dull songs, and “El Camino,” from a radio-friendly overproduction. But they returned to form on “True Blue,” an album of head-scratching blues-rock, heavy on the distortion and rough around the edges. An opening track stretching to seven minutes separates it from the previous two albums, but it’s tracks like “Bullet in the Brain” that make this a great, heavy rock record. The Keys took a little while to adjust to American fame, but since they have, we can only hope for more albums like “Turn Blue” in the future. Best track: “Bullet in the Brain”

#4. Lana Del Ray – “Ultraviolence”

With Adele’s leave of absence from music, the throne to the minimalist pop revival was left open. There’s been a few other contenders – namely, Lorde and Sam Smith – but this year, it belonged to Lana Del Ray. Her dark, seductive sophomore album improved on the redundant qualities of her debut, incorporating more instrumentation and sharper production. And, she intentionally subverts older themes – bringing a 60’s aura to the digital age. She sings like a villain seducing Sean Connery’s James Bond, but one that’s wholly aware of her YouTube comments. It’s a brooding work, dripping with both sensuality and a creeping sense of dread. In other words, not what you expect from a pop album in 2014. Best track: “Cruel World”

#3. FKA twigs – “LP1”

R&B used to stand for Rhythm & Blues, but in FKA twigs’ world, we’re far past that. “LP1” is a dense, captivating work that seems to imagine an R&B singer in a space-y future. Every track is sultry and catchy, but they aim to confuse as much as entertain. Her soft voice falls into the music behind her, and it’s a total sonic experience. The album completely immerses you into her slightly deranged, very ethereal universe. And it’s a universe that, though total, feels like it’s about to collapse at the seams. FKA twigs music isn’t about the lyrics, it’s about the musical experience. And “LP1” is quite an experience. Soft, compelling, heartbreaking and transparent, “LP1” is one of the year’s most unique releases. Best track: “Video Girl”

#2. Run the Jewels – “Run the Jewels 2”

Though all great in their own rights, we’re living in an era where rap radio is getting far too bloated with safe rap/R&B mixes like J. Cole and Trey Songz. And 2014 saw the sudden break-up of rap’s most intense group, Death Grips. But it’s okay – Run the Jewels are here to fill the void. Their second album is rough, dark and brutal. El-P and Killer Mike have been around for decades, but it wasn’t until they paired up that they really became powerhouses. And on RTJ2, they sound unstoppable. They might not be world famous, but they rap like they are. The album has an intensity to it that has rarely been seen since the N.W.A. days, one that’s been sorely missed. Even Death Grips, at their prime, weren’t as political or consistent as Run the Jewels are. And with surprising guest stars like Diane Coffee (drummer for indie-classic rock group Foxygen), Travis Barker and an incredible Zack de la Rocha (finally in the right setting, all these years later), it’s an uncompromising, unpredictable, volatile work. Too intense for you? Don’t worry – they’re planning a crowdfunded remix album featuring cat meows for beats. Run the Jewels operate with no gods, no masters. Best track: “Close Your Eyes (and Count to Fuck) (feat. Zack de la Rocha)”

#1. “St. Vincent” – St. Vincent

(Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

Halfway through “Huey Newton,” Annie Clark’s dreamy, sleepy rhythm completely gives way to a sludge guitar line, and her vocals develop a sudden, terrifying ferocity. The first time I listened to this song, I knew I wasn’t going to hear a better album in 2014. Clark set the bar high early, with a February 25th release date. On her fourth solo album, she opens up like never before, unafraid of approaching any territory: tracks about government surveillance and rattlesnake bites are overstuffed with electronic rhythms and heavy guitar that tantrically teeters on the brink of insanity, but restrains itself just in time. St. Vincent has always separated herself from her indie counterparts by incorporating slight avant garde ideas – “The Bed” and “Your Lips Are Red” are from her otherwise translucent first two albums. But on an album that deserves a self-title, she comes into her own. Her face has been on the cover of three of her four solo albums (and her collaborative album with David Byrne), but never this powerful, never this fierce. She lords over us, a new look, a new attitude, knowing we’ll eat up whatever she delivers. There might not have been an album in 2014 with a musician more in control of their own music. For those who have thought she was another indie-folk singer, it’s finally time to be proven wrong. Best track: “Birth in Reverse”

Runners-up that I would like to acknowledge: #11. Future – “Honest,” #12. Tinashe – “Aquarius,” #13. Taylor Swift – “1989,” #14. Interpol – “El Pintor,” #15. Aphex Twin – “Syro”

For a subjective list that’s gonna just be punk bands, check out my personal blog Post Grad Music Reviews sometime in the near future.

-By Andrew McNally

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