Best of 2014: 50 Albums (50–41)
Here’s part two of my countdown of the best music of 2014: my 50 favorite albums. (You can check out my favorite songs here.) I found a lot to love this year from many different places. Hope you find something new while you scroll through this list. OK, so on to #50-#41.
50. Bestial Burden by Pharmakon
► “Bestial Burden”
Crazy as it sounds, I felt jaded by Pharmakon’s Bestial Burden upon first listen. Margaret Chardiet’s previous Abandon excited me through crushing noise and power; each pounding of beats and voice blasted with sheer force like a violent gust of sonic blow. This new one, though, felt stagnant in comparison and grueling without much clear direction—but Bestial Burden is this way by design. Chardiet cites her post-surgery experience as an inspiration for this record, and the physically burdening period is reflected through its even denser electronics which places an overwhelming amount of weight upon Chardiet’s body and voice. Her screams, then, get put into a different context: It’s a cry for help to escape while being tied down in shackles — in this case, she’s imprisoned by her own body, one impossible confinement to truly escape.
49. Syro by Aphex Twin
Despite how many productions of his may point to a different conclusion, Richard D. James’ work as Aphex Twin cover not innovation but exploration of dance music. His best releases grin with enthusiastic energy, hungry to explore what foreign rhythms and unearthed synthesizers have to offer. From there comes his beastly new ideas that others take an entire generation to catch up on. Long-time-coming Syro once again follows what RDJ has been doing all along before he spent a decade and change away from his main guise. So, yes, not many immediate surprises bubble up here, but further you chase the rabbit to its hole, the textures become stickier and more alien while the beats constantly mutate in shape and mood. Soon Syro becomes a gift that keeps on giving, turning new unconventional stones with every listen. No matter if RDJ hangs up the Aphex Twin name for another ten years — this might keep us busy for the mean time.
48. July by Marissa Nadler
► “Was It a Dream?”
Marissa Nadler dealt with memories — ones so rich it’s hard to decipher if its real or imaginary—throughout her songwriting career, and July was the record that brought them to life the most vividly out of them all. The improved smoky production in her new noir cracked a new depth and soul, letting both the bliss of nostalgia and heartache in her music echo so lifelike with vibrant grit and glamor. Hear a record like “Drive,” and Nadler transports you to her countless travels in a perspective nestled in the passenger seat; “Was It a Dream?” makes you, too, question the surreality of the vibes at hand. Not only do the written-in surroundings feel so vast and tangible, the people in her world most importantly feel close to heart in her songs: whether or not the titular Emily in “Dead City Emily” is an actual person, Nadler’s hardship shared in her company makes you admire her regardless. With writing this vivid, the folk singer’s memories in July might as well be yours.
47. PC Music x DISown Radio by Various Artists
The identity of the divisive label PC Music is so intertwined with the internet that it’s nearly impossible to imagine its music and artists existing in the physical world. The web is where the label flourishes, and its members take full advantage of their full reign in the digital universe in its DIS magazine mix. Presented as a showcase, the mix rounds up six of the label’s members — A. G. Cook, GFOTY, Danny L. Harle, Lil Data, Nu New Edition and Kane West—with each given 10-minute slots to shine. This could’ve turned out as a regular B2B mix and would’ve turned out just fine; the curated music here is of-the-moment, filled with synthetic strings and fizzy beats. However, PC Music goes one step further to expand the mix format into a full-blown radio show to invite listeners to their colorfully constructed universe—not without including some tongue-in-cheek references to the IRL, of course.
46. In a Dream by The Juan MacLean
► “A Simple Design”
The Juan MacLean previously relished in long, long grooves — I’m talking 10-minute-average grooves. For In a Dream, though, he figured out how to crystallize his noodling house-music magic into certified pop songs, and it plays out as both his most accessible and (my opinion, anyway) best record the producer has built. His jams still clock in past five minutes on the regular, but the singles got delicious hooks and bridges, as well as the signature mid-interludes that acts as the icing on the cake. The step up here couldn’t have been possible without the presence and hot performance of Nancy Whang. She nails each sleek production with a newfound confidence as a frontwoman; when the funk demands love and desire, she matches the challenge and ends up leading the dance. In the current era when the mainstream craves anything dance, In a Dream proved to be the grade-A nu-disco album to dish out more than the audience bargained for.
45. Ghost Stories by Coldplay
Ghost Stories is a labor of love, even for Coldplay fans (such as me). If you thought Chris Martin couldn’t outdo himself singing fuzzy love, well, wait until some of the gushiest — and to be honest, sometimes uncomfortable — writing the guy has to share in this record. All of his signature sappiness gets delivered by a new-new-age adult-contemporary sound: blue, muted electronics derived from the school of James Blake, which is the polar opposite of the beating drums that marched them on for the past two records. However, tenderness has been their thing as well as mighty anthems; the two qualities often exist together in one song. Though the latter is traded in favor of the former, the songs still rise to the occasion. And the messier Chris Martin sounds due to his heartbreak — inspired by his actual “conscious uncoupling” or not — the more lively this record becomes. It’s sorta dumb how this album pans out when you weigh the rationality behind it all, but not many think so sensible during a time like this. Ghost Stories is a mess for better or for worse.
44. NVM by Tacocat
► “Bridge to Hawaii”
Tacocat’s winking nod of a clever title best explains what the band does so well with their music. Humor and sarcasm — along with killer, spiked-up riffs — drive the Seattle quartet’s pop-punk songs, whether it’d be a theme song to that time of the month (“Crimson Wave”) or that person you avoid everywhere you go (“Party Trap”). But make no mistake: none of the issues covered in the record are things to joke about; they make sure stupid exes and cat-callers on the street are unforgiven for what they’ve done. What sets Tacocat apart from the average punks is that they deal with problems in a more nuanced and — let’s be real — more entertaining way than shouting over simple riffs and sloganeering hooks. Knowing their talent, they could’ve cobbled together an album with songs literally about awesome food and animals and it would still kick ass. The things they share here, the frustrations and woes, only make the band even more likeable.
43. Little Red by Katy B
Katy B crowned herself underground dance-pop queen with the help of underground dance architects with On a Mission. Her eyes were now on set on the mainstream, and she conquered that realm, too, with her follow-up Little Red. Katy showed that she got what it takes for the job as the next star: a pitch-perfect dance banger (“5 AM”), towering adult-contemporary (“Crying for No Reason”), and a pledge of allegiance to the R&B goddess (“Aaliyah”). Though the productions here shot high for bright spectacle, the singer remained the down-to-earth club girl first introduced a few years back; she still liked to sing her hits like a casual, friendly chat about a crush. And like before on the debut, the best moments came when she wore her heart fearlessly on her sleeve, risking it all for the name of love. Katy B grew up in Little Red to talk mature things, but fortunately for us that didn’t have to take out any of the fun she had in her music.
42. Yahoo or the Highway by Lockah
One exciting shift in dance music these days sees producers bring out more color and humor into their releases — a much different, more inviting tone than the monochrome low-end theorists who obsessed over hazy obscurity and hardcore minimalism. Lockah’s neon-tinged cruisers in Yahoo or the Highway are fine examples of a current personality that leads dance production into thrilling places. He has some fun as he builds his tracks, lacing goofy ad libs and dramatic scene-setters into his hilariously titled songs. (Some examples: “A Face Only Another Could Love,” “If Loving U Is Wrong, I Don’t Want to Be Wrong.”) Underneath his clownish exterior, he flexes his production talents with intricate drum beats and a great sense of vibe and arrangement. It’s a well-balanced meal of fun-poking looseness and highbrow professionalism. See, you can be a slacker and be serious at the same time.
41. Shyne Coldchain Vol. II by Vince Staples
Hell Can Wait is a great record, but rather than introduce a new face, it more so affirmed the points that Vince Staples already established in Shyne Coldchain Vol. II. First is that Vince Staples is a beast of a rapper — ferociously stylish, concise and purposeful with whatever topic he decides to rap. Second reminds that the Long Beach rapper is out here to tell honest tales about the daily struggles of his life in the neighborhood, and by extension, the rough shit other neighborhood deals with. But third and maybe the most important of all, the emcee mastered the mixtape format with Shyne Coldchain Vol. II. He preferred to let his tape be over in less than half an hour with Vol. I, and he packs twice the energy and message in the same length—as well as burning hooks to memorize after the end of the tape. So, Hell Can Wait being released as an EP format made perfect sense: Vince Staples aimed to strike quick to inflict the most damage possible, and Vol. II was the record where his vision became fully defined.