My favorite albums of 2014

Music in a year of transition

It’s satisfying to look back and take stock of the things that you’ve experienced. I’ve made it something of an annual tradition to stack rank my favorite albums at the end of each year, and this year marks the 10th year I’ve gone through the ritual.

2013 was the best year in music I’d heard since I started taking stock. Nearly every one of my favorite artists released an album, and as such, almost none of those artists released new albums this year.

For me, that left 2014 feeling like a year of transition: a kind of not-always-comfortable-but-necessary stepping stone, which coupled nicely with my life in general this last year being one of transition. I spent more time making music, writing, thinking, reading, and frankly, being on my own, than I have in the last 10 years. It wasn’t always comfortable or fun or easy, but it was an opportunity to take intentional steps to step out of the comfort of routine.

I listened to a much wider variety of genres and artists I wouldn’t have heard in a year flush with familiar names. I heard a lot that I liked (and a lot I wanted to like but didn’t totally get), and finished the year with an appreciation for a lot of new artists.

15. Tycho — Awake

choice track: Dye

Mellow with more of a driving beat than a lot of the ambient stuff I listen to. Makes for great work background music, or can instantly make a walk around a city or plane takeoffs and landings feel much more epic than they otherwise might be. Lots of people who make drone videos probably use tracks from this album as background music.

14. Jhene Aiko — Souled Out

choice track: The Pressure

Jhene Aiko has been making guest spots with Childish Gambino, Drake, Lil Wayne, and a bunch of other mainstream rappers for awhile, and always through a distinctive take on her hook that tended to define the track much more than any of her contemporaries ever could have. This is a concept album, which, as a debut album, is a pretty ambitious undertaking, and while this won’t be the album that breaks her through to the mainstream, there are some gems on here that showcase what may be yet to come.

13. Caribou —Our Love

choice track: Can’t Do Without You

‘Can’t Do Without You’ may be my favorite opening track of the year, and surprised me that Caribou was moving less experimental and more straightforward than previous releases. This album is perfect fall-time listening, and he manages to create a more accessible, dancy album while not sacrificing what made Caribou special in the first place.

12. The War on Drugs — Lost in the Dream

choice track: Under the Pressure

I hadn’t heard this band until this year, but I really liked this album. They’ve got a kind of 80s Americana/roots rock sound that reminds me of a Dire Straits or Jackson Browne type sound that my parents listened to a lot when I was growing up. ‘Under the Pressure’ sounds like it’d fit in perfectly in a montage in a coming of age movie from 1987 (and that’s a good thing).

11. Sylvan Esso — Sylvan Esso

choice track: Coffee

‘Coffee’ felt like it was one of the bigger tracks of the year amongst people I talked to, and rightfully so — the initial build up, her voice hitting the track, and the bells (or whatever those are) that pop up sporadically on the first verse, and then finally the ‘get up, get down’ in the hook fit together so well, but have that beautiful feeling that minimal art does where it comes off as almost effortless. And besides that track, this album was actually really good —‘Hey Mami’ is a great opener, and her melodies throughout the album are some of my favorite of this year.

10. Your Old Droog — Your Old Droog

choice track: Nutty Bars

This guy came absolutely out of nowhere and delivered one of the more mysterious releases in hip hop that I can remember. First, the production sounds like he was hanging out exclusively with mid-90s New York producers, and his voice shines over the beats. Second, and it’s probably going to be mentioned in every review of this guy’s work: he sounds a lot like Nas. Everyone I played this for asked if it was Nas, and his voice, his flow, his word choice and annunciation: I’ve never heard a rapper that sounds so much like another familiar voice, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

He’s in that underground stage of his career where the beats are minimal and the hooks not especially catchy, but I could listen to him do 64-bar songs for a full album and not get tired of him. Great wordplay, spectacular flow, and very impressive rhyme schemes throughout this album — any hip hop purist needs to make sure they hear this record.

9. Jessie Ware — Tough Love

choice track: Kind Of…Sometimes…Maybe (remix) ft J. Cole

This album snuck up on me — somehow I missed hearing about it before it was released, and it took me a week or two to actually give it a proper listen, but it’s grown on me with each subsequent listen. Her voice is one of my favorites in music today, oscillating between delicate in build-ups and commanding in the choruses on this album.

The track mentioned above isn’t actually officially on the album, but the pairing with J. Cole on the remix was one of my favorite songs of the year—the minimal drum beat with that bass-sounding synth that comes in on the final hook as she sings the backing harmony was a really beautiful moment in music this year.

8. Porter Robinson — Worlds

choice track: Flicker

As much as I try to appreciate electronic music, it’s been an area that hadn’t resonated with me — a lot of repetition, a lot of songs sounding alike, and a lot of time with friends at raves where I didn’t really get the entertainment value. That said, my experience with electronic music in 2014 is fortunately much different than 2008, and Porter Robinson’s album was emblematic of how stark that contrast is.

This is a really good album, with each track clearly carefully put together and textured beautifully—where other artists would throw the same loop in for another 16 or 32 counts, this album takes no shortcuts and delivers as one of my favorite electronic albums of the last decade. What’s more, Porter Robinson is 22, which is incredible. With where he’s at already, I can’t wait to see where he goes from here.

Also, sidenote: shout out to The Hood Internet for making the best mashup of 2014 with their DiviniXO mashup with Porter Robinson and Bey.

7. FKA twigs — LP1

choice track: Lights On

This was one of those albums I heard the first time, liked a couple tracks, and kind of forgot about. Listening to music on shuffle a few weeks later, ‘Light’s On’ came on, and became one of my favorite tracks of the year. It’s not the most accessible, but I think that’s because it doesn’t quite sound like anything else.

At first, I got a little bit of the jj—kills mixtape from a few years back, but then you realize that there’s way more layering here, and things I still notice hearing tracks dozens of times. I don’t know quite what genre I’d place her in or even what she reminds me of—it’s rare to find something that does feel completely original while still being enjoyable, but that’s what I get from her album.

6. Taylor Swift—1989

choice track: blank space

Taylor Swift has turned into one of the more polarizing figures in pop music in the last few years, and it shows on this album — ‘Shake it Off’ as a lead single feels like a pretty direct reaction to her tabloid characterizations, and the hook of ‘Blank Space’ with “got a long list of ex-lovers/they’ll tell you I’m insane” as a nod to the attention her dating life’s received.

She hasn’t avoided controversy with this record—from the video for ‘Shake it Off’ to ‘Welcome to New York’ and its characterization of New York as a land of starry-eyed glory for 22 year old city transplants, much to the chagrin of many self-righteous native New Yorkers.

The most important one, though, may have been the Spotify choice, and the one stat that Spotify probably hopes doesn’t get to be more well-known than it already is: she sold 1.2 million records week 1. No one sells that many records in a week anymore — not since 2002 has anyone done that. Given the climate of music sales, there’s a legitimate argument that it’s one of the most impressive opening weeks of a record of all-time. And she did it by being the biggest artist yet to pull the plug on Spotify. Some food for thought there.

5. Raury—Indigo Child

choice track: Superfly

This is another artist who came out of nowhere with a sound that has elements that remind of familiar things I’ve heard, but between the guitar, folk-driven hooks, Andre 3000-inspired verses and buildups, it’s almost like a group of musicians combining elements of Outkast, Frank Ocean, and Bon Iver. Instead, it’s a 17 year old kid who put together one of the best albums of the year.

The album’s range is impressive for any album, but considering it’s a debut from a 17-year old, it’s crazy. Apparently ‘God’s Whisper’ elicited a congratulatory call from Kanye, and earlier this summer, Raury was opening for Outkast in Atlanta. This kid is hyper-creative, and given the quality of this album, I think he’s got to be a perfectionist — the attention to detail here is on point, and I’m super curious to hear how he develops.

4. Logic — Under Pressure

choice track: Under Pressure

I first heard Logic on a mixtape a couple years ago, and was impressed with his ability to tell personal stories that still stood as enjoyable songs in their own right, and it’s that recipe that turned a kid sleeping on his friend’s couches as a teenager into an artist with a dedicated following of hundreds of thousands of people before ever signing a deal.

Last year he signed to Def Jam / Visionary Music Group, and managed to up his game even further with this album. He orchestrated an impressive collection of producers and managed to create 15 tracks that can each stand on their own, while still feeling like they’re cohesive as an album. His ability to flow circles around any beat he gets keeps you on edge, and he stepped up his hooks in a major way since his mixtapes.

3. RAC — Strangers

choice track: Let Go ft Kele & MNDR

RAC’s output over the last few years has been consistently top notch—if you saw that he’d (/they) put out a mix, not only was that track likely to be stuck in your head for the next few days, but he also broke a lot of indie artists into more mainstream recognition.

RAC has his finger on the pulse of catchy hooks and great songwriters, and he created a spectacular album with features from Tegan & Sara, YACHT, St. Lucia, and Penguin Prison, among others. In some ways, it almost feels like a greatest hits or compilation album with so many great artists delivering quality performances here, but that didn’t stop it from being one of my favorite albums of the year.

2. Run the Jewels —Run the Jewels 2

choice track: Early ft BOOTS

El-P and Killer Mike just released the first Run the Jewels album last year, and it was an adrenaline rush of 30 minutes of El-P’s distinctive production paired perfectly with two MCs complementing each other’s styles. Not only do they pick up where they left off, they’ve managed to outdo themselves with this latest offering: this album is more intense, more varied, and is a step up from a debut album that was one of the best debuts in recent memory.

While I do love this album, it clearly isn’t something that people who aren’t hip hop fans will tend to appreciate. Even just starting the album out, Killer Mike’s opening 12 seconds before the beat drops is a pretty clear polarizer to figure out who might enjoy the album and immediately turn off people who won’t enjoy it.

Run the Jewels has been my favorite music to work out to the last few years, with El-P’s production reminding me of listening to a lot of DefJux artists in college, but he’s managed to take a new spin on it for this album, pairing it with the droning background vocals on Early or the chants and machine gun drums from Travis Barker on ‘All Due Respect.’ It’s impossile to listen to this album without feeling like you need to be running faster.

1. J. Cole — 2014 Forest Hills Drive

choice track: Wet Dreamz

This album: wow.

The reason I got into hip-hop was largely because I find it to be the greatest way to tell stories in music, and specifically stories from the artist’s life. I can always enjoy the sound of a rock album, but I generally don’t feel like I know who the people in the band are or what their life experiences have been like. For as much flack as hip-hop gets for sticking to generic tropes of money or women or drugs, nothing matches great, thoughtful, introspective hip-hop for me, and this album has it in droves.

I almost don’t want to say anything here that would give away any of the gems on this album for people who haven’t heard it, so firstly, I’ll say: listen to this album. Don’t put it on in the background while you’re reading something else or while you’re talking to your friend, but really listen to this album. Put on headphones, walk around your city, and listen to it alone. And pay attention while you do.

J. Cole’s album is named after what he describes as the first real home he had, and the tracks on this album put you right there with him growing up. And not in the way you might think when you think ‘coming of age’ hip hop album. He doesn’t glorify or horrify—he speaks to his own faults, the beauty he had around him, and relates interactions and conversations along with the feelings behind them that make you really feel like you leave this album with sense of his story.

Cole had gotten flack for not fulfilling his potential, and had been hit with both sides of critics’ swords: he can’t make a single, or his album doesn’t sound like his mixtape. Regardless of how justified those previous critiques were, there’s not lot that can be picked at on this album: musically, lyrically, and melodically, he puts together a spectacular album, and it’s my favorite of 2014.

So there it is: my top albums of 2014. I know there are albums I need to give further attention (D’Angelo, for one), and some that I really wanted to like but just couldn’t get behind, and will revisit next year to see if they do click. And while there weren’t as many blockbuster artists releasing albums this year, as A-Trak mentioned, it opened an important lane for emerging artists.

It was a year of transition—that not-always-comfortable-but-necessary stepping stone—but I definitely leave 2014 with an appreciation for a much wider variety of artists and look forward to what 2015 has in stock.

Charlie Kubal is a critically-acclaimed producer who tours as wait what, and has played everywhere from the top club in Bangkok to Fashion Week in Toronto to a New York stadium show with Lil Wayne.

He performs a live mashup project with Shane Mac and curates a monthly mixtape, songs i like. Follow him on Twitter @wtwht and Soundcloud

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