It’s December 17th at the time of this writing, and 2014 is on its way out. Now last year, I put this list out a bit too soon and ended up excluding a certain album by Beyoncé in doing so. I waited a bit this year and I’m glad I did, because something similar happened, and I was ready for it.
So. The ten albums below are the ones that have had the most impact on me throughout the year; for me, they’re the ten best that 2014 had to offer. This list used to be a Top 25, but I’ve shaved it down some. Ten just feels right.
With that, here we go:
THE TOP 10 ALBUMS OF 2014
10) SWANS – To Be Kind
Since their reformation in 2010, Swans have been descending deeper and deeper into some treacherous well of primal, cosmic terror – and for our benefit (thanks???), they’ve been grabbing whatever malignancies that they can find down there, and have proceeded to hammer and sculpt them into songs. Maybe that’s hyperbolic, but what *other* conclusion can you possibly draw while listening to (nay, enduring) something like Bring The Sun/Toussaint L’Ouverture for 34 minutes?
It’s been said again and again, but it needs to be said perhaps one more time: there’s not another ensemble who’s reformed after such a prolonged absence that’s come back with as pure and as natural a vision as Swans have. To Be Kind is (as The Seer was before it) the pinnacle of what the band’s been reaching for their entire career – and whatever’s left in that horrible well, rest assured they’ll find it.
9) EMA – The Future’s Void
This year, Zola Jesus pushed herself further into pop territory than she’s ever been with Taiga, while Margaret Chardiet (aka Pharmakon) crafted a nightmarish ode to decaying bodies with Bestial Burden. Somewhere in between the expansive joy of the former and the sense of danger of the latter is EMA’s The Future’s Void, one of the catchiest – and noisiest – albums of the year.
The songs on The Future’s Void sneakily play against expectation; Cthulu evokes not Lovecraftian doom, but the good ol’ fashioned blues, rendered through a canyon. Dead Celebrity, completely devoid of cynicism, is instead a surprisingly sweet ballad about fame and death. And Neuromancer (below) is a hypnotic tribal jam adrift on a sea of electronic waves – and not, you know, a Billy Idol song.
8) RUN THE JEWELS – Run The Jewels 2
About 40 seconds into All My Life, Killer Mike spits out the line “pow pow pow leave your chestplate open.” It’s a cold, visceral image, one that just so happens to be underscored with pistol sound effects from the Nintendo 64 game Goldeneye. Whatever make/model MIA used for gunz in Paper Planes is studiously absent here.
It’s juxtapositions like that which make RTJ2 so fascinating to listen to. During Close Your Eyes (And Count To Fuck), Mike caps off a particularly volatile verse denouncing the prison industrial complex with an aside about religious indoctrination, and then El-P chimes in with “they’ll strip your kids to the nude and then tell ’em God will forgive ’em.” That line hits like a freight train every time I hear it, and the album is loaded with lines just like it. Killer Mike and El-P have each been doing their thing in the hip-hop scene for ten-plus years now, and this here is only their second collaboration as Run The Jewels. They’re apparently already at work on album three. When you listen to RTJ2, you can’t help but think “how could they not be?”
7) CHARLI XCX – Sucker
Sucker has been out in the world for maybe a week or so now, but it feels like it’s an old friend. Maybe that’s because Charli XCX has been graciously gifting us with a song here and a song there for six months (to the point where roughly half of the album had been made available in advance of its December release). Some of these songs, like Boom Clap (THE summer jam of 2014), require no introduction. Other songs that have come out subsequently, like Gold Coins, may not have gotten as much exposure or press, but are nonetheless remarkable (were it to flirt with a minor key, Gold Coins could easily have fit onto the latest Nine Inch Nails album).
All of the songs released thus far on Sucker, though, appear near the beginning of the album. Everything on the latter half of the record is relatively uncharted, in a chronological sense. And while there’s tons of great songs to be found there, the album’s closer, Need Ur Love, is the clear standout for me: an entirely unexpected and deliriously wonderful cap-off to a fantastic album. It’s the Bound 2 of 2014. It may, in fact, be better.
6) D’ANGELO & THE VANGUARD – Black Messiah
As mentioned above, Charli XCX’s Sucker has been out for roughly one week. Black Messiah, D’Angelo’s long long long long long awaited follow-up to 2000’s Voodoo, has been out for two days. I’ve listened to it only twice. I will no doubt listen to it many times more. But in those two listens, it’s already been made plain to me that the album is something extraordinary. Like the third My Bloody Valentine album that casually surfaced last year, Black Messiah is at this point less an album for me and more of a reward for patience and faith. It’s musical fulfillment on the deepest and most gratifying level possible.
I can’t really distill the album down for you right now. I don’t know if I even should. And I’m pretty sure that the sixth place ranking up above isn’t honest. But it’s what I did. With that, it should be given that I don’t know how to introduce or summarize a song like Really Love at this point either, so I’ll just drop it below and be done with it.
5) AGAINST ME! – Transgender Dysphoria Blues
Transgender Dysphoria Blues was the only album of 2014 which moved me to tears, and it did so more than once. I hesitate to ascribe a reason for this, as I’ve seen more than a few pieces declaring the album’s emotional resonance to be “universal”, a label which is more than a little disrespectful (not to mention tone-deaf). When you take a specific, personal and direct experience and attribute universality to it, you’re degrading it – even if your intentions are malicious. Yes, this is the first Against Me! album to be released following Laura Jane Grace’s coming out as a transgender woman. And when she sings “never quite the woman that she wanted to be” on Paralytics States (below), my eyes well up. I don’t feel that trying to find the “why?” of it is productive or worthwhile. Where would I end up at? I don’t see the point in trying to find the wellspring there, and frankly, it doesn’t matter. These are Laura’s songs, and we’re all lucky enough to be able to hear them. Nothing more needs to be said than that.
4) SIA – 1000 Forms of Fear
50% of the time. If I had to pin down how frequently Sia’s vocals are intelligible during the course of her swing-for-the-fences sixth album 1000 Forms of Fear, I’d say 50% of the time. For a pop album, this doesn’t really compute; by definition, these songs are supposed to be singalong songs, songs that stir something in you so deeply that you can’t help but join in.
On this album, Sia’s rocketship of a voice is a smokescreen half the time, so you end up gravitating to those bits and pieces of phrases that float through when the smoke clears momentarily. On Hostage (which would’ve been right at home on Paramore’s self-titled album last year), the line that sticks with you is “don’t lock me up.” An odd moment to take away from such an upbeat song, to be sure. Sometimes, though, it isn’t even a lyric that you take with you; on Free The Animal (which you can stream below), it’s the Dan Deacon-esque glissandi that Sia carves her voice into during the chorus.
Sia’s been making music for nearly 20 years now, but hasn’t made a straight-up pop album until now. It was worth the wait, and then some.
3) ST. PAUL & THE BROKEN BONES – Half The City
I was up late one night in the summer watching The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson with my girlfriend, and they showed a still of St. Paul & The Broken Bones in advance of their performances on the show. I didn’t know what to expect; the band looked like the collective kid-brother of The Mighty Mighty Bosstones or something. Imagine my shock, then, when they started playing soul music, music that sounded as though it was being summoned directly from an era in which none of the band members were even alive to experience.
Every once in a while, a band does this; they sound as though they’re coming directly from a time that has since passed. Wolfmother did it with their debut album. The Black Keys did it with Rubber Factory. Hell, even Iron Maiden managed to make an 80’s Iron Maiden album in 2003 with Dance of Death. And now, St. Paul & The Broken Bones’ Half The City is among them, a musical anachronism of sorts. An album from the now that just as easily could have been part of the then. And a classic in every sense of the word.
2) GOAT – Commune
With a name like Goat, spelled out in gothic lettering, and track names like To Travel The Path Unknown and Hide From The Sun, you might think Commune is a metal album (and Goat, by extension, a metal band). Neither is true, though the inclination to think the opposite is understandable. In terms of lineage, Goat hover somewhere between Comets On Fire and Dungen in the psych-rock omniverse; they sound, though, like neither. The songs on Commune are vast, cavernous things that sound like they’ve blistered over from being left out in the sun too long. In that sense, the album feels not *old*, but ancient.
Commune is only Goat’s second album, a fact I inevitably marvel at every time I listen to it. I loved World Music, their debut, but that album is a comparatively tamer affair. You can sense the band still finding their footing when it’s playing. With Commune, this feeling is nonexistant; every song feels like a rust-tinged relic carried over from someplace far away. Every song is as it must be. Forgive me if that sounds dopey – just listen to Gathering of Ancient Tribes and you’ll see what I mean.
1) CLOUD NOTHINGS – Here and Nowhere Else
The last time Cloud Nothings released an album was in 2012. Attack On Memory it was called, and it was an open, muscular and bracing album (due in no small part to Steve Albini’s engineering). And now, two years later, we have Here And Nowhere Else. In terms of the sound, it’s the opposite of Attack On Memory; where that album was expensive and unrestrained, Here And Nowhere Else feels cramped and strangled, like a gallon of gas forced into too small a container. The songs themselves aren’t exactly filled with any more or less dread or doubt than the previous album, but they certainly *feel* darker. The entire album feels as though it’s straining to escape some sort of prison that it’s stuck in, giving it an energy that Attack On Memory lacks.
When Now Hear In comes on in my workout playlist, I pick up the pace. When I’m Not Part of Me comes on my iPod while I’m walking around, my stride increases. When Quieter Today comes on while I’m driving, I instinctively speed up, and have to concentrate and force myself to slow down. And when No Thoughts comes on, wherever I am, I need to get up and move around. It’s not a song I can listen to sitting still. The energy that permeates this album is transferred directly to me. Every time. It’s the top album of the year for me, and from the moment I first heard it, it could never not have been.
So there we go. That’s all for this year. Comments welcome, as always. Take care, everyone!