This is a list of seriously amazing music. The best albums released in 2014, no shit. You probably haven’t heard of some of these artists. That’s okay. That’s awesome, in fact. Most of it’s off the beaten path, and it’d be a shame if that’s the only reason you never heard it. My biggest pleasure with this blog is hearing from friends who discovered something that’s become absolutely essential in their lives. I treasure that feeling and only hope to spread it. Enrich your life. Be adventurous, try out some of the music streaming on this page! It’s free right now and you’re definitely not doing anything better!
I know this is late in the sense that most people publish their lists before the year is done, but I couldn’t care less about being first in judging an entire year’s worth of beautiful music. I’d always rather be finished than first.
Every piece of music on this list deserves attention. You’ll probably love some and hate others, because that’s how taste works.
See the Best of 2014 Honorable Mention list for the greatest albums that didn’t quite make the final cut!
[Note: excepting the ABSOLUTE FAVORITES section, these albums are listed in the order I heard them.]
Shackleton – Freezing Opening Thawing
[Woe To The Septic Heart!]
Having been a massive Shackleton fan since 2009, I eagerly await everything he’s done, and the winter of 2014 birthed a new phase of his sound with this 25 minute EP. Evolving past the prog-dub of past releases, he moves into more pointillist oriented territory here, with bright timbres and a warmer tone evoked through the highly synthetic yet tactile sound.
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Teebs – E S T A R A
Teebs has been a favorite of mine ever since his debut album 5 years ago. His utopian sound vistas are so singularly pleasing to my ears that it overwhelms any sense of deja vu I get from each new release. Sure, he rarely strays from this palette, but what a sound-world it is! I could live inside this album, even more so than anything the man has released before. The chiming, hazy, emerald-seaside-dream feeling that permeates every second is a seduction I can never ignore.
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Lee Gamble – KOCH
Lee Gamble surprised the hell out of me this year. Out of nowhere, this album hit me in some of the same places Actress (and no one else) has over the past few years. It’s a fantasy techno, ambient cyberpunk, sonic collage which you can, must, and will sink into for 75 minutes at a time. This is one of those albums with interludes, suites, and whole stretches of dream-space to get lost in. I can drift for hours inside this hermetically sealed, bruised neon universe. Take a long look at the cover art. You’re likely picturing this sound, if you’re of a certain mind. Fans of Aphex Twin and SETI must apply within.
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Freddie Gibbs & Madlib – Piñata
How can I explain this album? I’d never been a Gibbs fan before, and Madlib, despite crafting some of the most unique, jazz-inflected beat science since J Dilla died, had lost my interest in the past couple years. It was my fault; I overdosed. Clearly, Madlib hasn’t lost an ounce of genius. With this record, Gibbs seems to have found his perfect foil. Madlib crafts exotically psychedelic playgrounds for Gibbs’ narcotic rhymes to run amok in. Whether rapping about coke deals gone bad or a convict’s romantic mishaps, the duo elevates an entire song into something more engaging than the sum of its parts. This album is without a doubt on par with the legendary Madvillain LP, released a full decade ago. I feel like the video below illustrates the weird but effective mixture of bravado, tenderness, and exotic sound that defines the album.
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Jo Johnson – Weaving
The second track starts with a spare analog synth arpeggio that immediately transported me to Nausicaa Of The Valley Of The Wind, Hayao Miyazaki’s first anime masterpiece. That alone would have endeared Johnson to me. The fact that the rest of it plays out like a more friendly cousin to Klaus Schultze’s celestial kosmiche cemented it as one of this year’s best. Play the title track below, or click here to listen to the full album streaming free.
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Giant Claw – Dark Web
[Orange Milk Records]
Imagine something super hyperactive and brainy; imagine spastic R&B producer Arca rewiring the psychedelic midi storms of Oneohtrix Point Never. Some people claim to hear ghosts of Windows 95; I hear the future. This is frequently stunning music in which disparate elements of pop, dance, and computer music collide and coalesce in thrilling bursts of energy. The effect is like watching a box of LEGOs tumbling down a hill, the pieces snapping into castles and spaceships as they blast through the air.
Whole album is streaming on the Bandcamp page.
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Andy Stott – Faith In Strangers
When Andy Stott dropped his last album, 2012’s Luxury Problems, I was absolutely blown away. Here was a guy known for grinding, cavernous techno that would sound at home in any dystopian nightclub, suddenly crafting stark, high contrast beat sculptures with an opera vocalist as his centerpiece instrument. The sound conjured images of cosmic skyscrapers emerging from a crater of moon base wreckage; he’d crafted a wholly alien yet immediately gripping experience. His next album sees Stott molding that unique sound into something with dramatic sweep and a sense of narrative. This builds like a room slowly filling with water. There’s an ebb and flow, an emotional tide to these nine songs. I’ve shared the title track below. It’s the warmest moment on the album, freely emerging into the starlight near the end of a dark labyrinthine tracklist.
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Francis Harris – Minutes Of Sleep
[Scissor and Thread]
When a friend introduced me to DJ Sprinkles’ deep house masterpiece, Midtown 120 Blues, earlier this year, I sank into a pit. I loved the sound so much, it disturbed me to be unaware of anything similar in scope and feeling. Then I ran into this sublime album and rejoiced to the knowledge that this jazzy, melancholy strain of dance is alive and well. With distant, echoed trumpet filigrees and a hushed percussion sense, the understated album became my go-to writing music at work, until the day I played it in my car on a long drive. Great writing music is hard to find and fills an essential need, but it’s often something that never leaves background status. Instead, I realized on that drive that this was one of 2014’s only albums that satisfied my growing passion for both spiritual jazz and ambient techno (or house).
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D’Angelo – Black Messiah
I grew up hearing a handful of D’Angelo’s singles on MTV in my teenage years, but wasn’t in any shape to appreciate his mature blend of R&B soul at that age. I finally checked his pair of 90s landmark albums a few years ago and enjoyed them, but it wasn’t until Black Messiah that I realized the brilliance of this man. With an almost techno-precise bass line pulsing throughout the album, the connective rhythm tissue binding these songs stands out immediately. Sometimes muffled and harsh, sometimes lush and open, the insistent beat maintains a clear plot-line throughout a kaleidoscopic collection of psychedelic jams. Friends have compared this to Sly & The Family Stone’s landmark There’s A Riot Goin’ On, and I have to agree. There’s really no modern precedent for this music. With the world turning out daily cultural tragedies, we’re all the richer for it existing today.
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Theo Parrish – American Intelligence
Parrish crafts some of the most soulful techno in the world right now. Employing classic electro and funk timbres to stark, emotionally draining effect, American Intelligence is a grand monument to my personal belief that the best techno is what jazz evolved into. It’s like realizing that dinosaurs gave way to birds, rather than the pedestrian lizards of today. This intense 3LP collection twists and turns through funky, snarling, soothing grooves with immaculate craftsmanship. Parrish wanted to craft something more like his live shows, where he is a consummate musician lately, shedding his DJ past. Vocals blur with live drums and organ, often swelling to a dizzying pressure. This is the definition of a audacious, divisive music. A lot of people don’t understand it at all. A few of us are in love.
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With my absolute favorite albums of 2014, I can firmly state that these four albums are each better than the one listed before. I had the strongest feelings for these sets, far above and beyond the rest of my Best Of 2014 list. These four albums transcended mere infatuations to become the kind of music that I already get excited about returning to, only a few months after release at the most. Without a doubt in my mind, I’ll be enjoying each of these records for years to come.
Aphex Twin – Syro
The return of Aphex Twin brought with it a tidal wave of anticipation and confusion. What could have been important enough to bring the reclusive genius out of hiding? Could this album literally be God in music form? I was prepared to be let down.
Somehow, Syro is so incredibly good that I feel embarrassed for ever having doubted Richard D. James. This manages to combine elements of the appeal of each of his prior albums, while reaching for new territory. This is prime-time genre-defying, epoch defining Aphex Twin music, and it’s more well produced and lush than ever before. Despite the decade-plus gap since we last heard from Aphex Twin (and over 7 years since his last anonymous side-project), the entire album feels fresh, vital… far more than relevant, it feels absolutely timeless. This music transcends genre trappings and definitions; it’s too jazzy, too elusive to frame in anyone else’s terms. Come here, fans of techno, jazz, prog rock, IDM, dubstep, and anything considered psychedelic.
I wanted to share XMAS EVET10 but there seem to be no legit copies on youtube. Let me know if one pops up?
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Flying Lotus – You’re Dead!
Speaking of jazz, Flying Lotus finally took a headlong dive off the deep end in 2014. You’re Dead! is a monumental leap into the wilds of free and spiritual jazz for the beat maestro who merely flirted with the genre before. It’s not just the prominent use of live instrumentation, chopped, atomized, and repurposed via strange magic; it’s the very structure and soul of the sound. This album is ferocious and alive, blasting off with a primal energy into surprising directions with every turn. This is the apex of exciting music, grasping for everything it can and fighting for life against all odds. There’s a well of sadness informing the entire set, gradually building into a rush of defiant revelry by the final track. It may begin as the journey of what it’s like to die, but it ends leaving you with the experience of having truly lived, bursting at the seams with raw energy.
Please watch this video. It’s pure fucking art. This is the most affecting, heart-rending, life-affirming short film I’ve seen in years. Brings tears to my eyes.
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Actress – Ghettoville
[Werk Discs, Ninja Tune]
This began 2014 and stayed until the snow melted. Now that blizzard weather has returned, Ghettoville has wormed deep into my brain again and settled in for the long sleep. This is deeply weird music for the uninitiated. Electronic, and ostensibly beat-driven, most of the songs here would be at home on the most far-out Aphex Twin singles or side projects. The busted, broken down textures and vhs-filtered synth hums are a challenge at first, yet each sequence unfolds to allow the patient listener access to a brain-melting payoff. The tunes drift for miles before bumping against sure footing in a dense fog of obfuscated rhythm and alien atmosphere. This is music for truly and utterly leaving earthy confines behind. When the nebulous passages convalesce into pure dancefloor menace, Actress cuts a strikingly original bliss.
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Shabazz Palaces – Lese Majesty
Shabazz Palaces took over my dreams for a good chunk of the year. This is hip-hop at its most abstract and psychedelic. It’s the height of weird (or experimental to some) music yet incredibly catchy, insistent, and grounded. The duo of Ishmael Butler and Tendai Maraire have shot off on an intergalactic voyage far beyond their best of 2011 debut, Black Up. They just might have passed Sun Ra with this album, as far as spacey jazz odysseys go. The fact that I’m equally in love with rap and jazz means that I’m the perfect audience for this sound. The fact that it’s astounding, transcending boundaries in both ends of this spectrum is what makes it my definitive, hands-down best album of 2014.
There are no adequate superlatives to convey how I feel about Lese Majesty. This is truly New Music of the highest order, challenging any notions of what hip-hop can be. There’s a romantic, serious undertow at play, anchoring the galactic wordplay and warp-drive production. This music blasts beyond the stars while sinking into your heart. There’s nothing more bracingly new and soulfully engaging that you’ll likely hear in a long time.
They’re also known for having slick, strange, and satisfying music videos.
This one was the first single, which I wrote about as well.
I just discovered this today. The magic continues!
I hope you’ve enjoyed this list and that it helps you hear something, anything new that enriches your life.